Italy, June 2001




By Ugo giannangeli and Giuseppe Pelazza, lowiers


Until the 70's, an impressive silence weighted around the whole prison system: it was a place of segregation were inmates were paying their debt towards society. Between 1970 and 1971, there were around  80 prison revolts which helped to create public attention around these issues. Inquiries, hunger strikes and a number of suicides helped to break the wall of silence.

Prison struggles were supported by a strong solidarity from those on the outside and we witnessed how the division between social and political prisoners were easily overridden; it's easy to find the roots of this division in the fascist era.

A big number of prisoners got politicized into prison eliminating  this division completely: repression appeared unique and deeply classist.

Starting from this context, the new laws around the prison reform started to be discussed and they'll be contributing to the Law approved in 1975 (Law 24, July 1975, n. 354). During these years, inquiries and writings on the prison system started to increase, there was a big number of writings from the inside ("the Impossible Break" by Sante Notaricola; "Prisons in Italy" by Ricci and Salerno).

On the normative side, at that time, the Penal Code (1930) and the Prison Rulings (1931) were the only disposition completing the weak laws of the Penal Code: those rules were all focused on the maintenance of order: separations between buildings decided on the kind of crime, creation of a big number of disciplinary infractions (nearly 50 - from taking a break without permission, to singing and swearing - and the consequent punishments - bread and water, a block on mailing and packing ). To watch on the execution of the conviction, there was the presence of a judge of surveillance;  a raw mechanism of prizing was already into existence: compliments from the director of the penal institute, 2 stamps per month and more visits from family and friends.

This Prison Reform (1975), which introduced certain changes in some Laws and Prison Rules of particular relevance, had a considerable impact: this was an attempt to convert the conviction into social works, which permitted to go out of the penal institute, after three month of observation, if the conviction was less than 2 1/2 years; which allowed a regimen of semi-liberty after having served half of the conviction; which guaranteed a politics of winning days (40 days a  year) in case of good conduct; which gave special permissions in case of family problems. 1976 Rulings included some measure of works on the outside under strict surveillance.

In this context, it's evident the role and relevance of the magistracy of surveillance which rules on reductions of sentence and on alternative forms of conviction. The judge, along with administrative personnel and prison guards, is strictly related to the sentence, while along with the social service and the police department, to the various forms of surveillance.

Even in this context, at least in the first period, it's possible to find judges willing to rule explicitly in contrast with the Board of the penitentiaries directors as with the government. But phenomenon like these will inevitably disappear because this conditions change following the existing social and political context. Following this omologation  to the "Capitalism values" the magistracy will be guarantor and caretaker of all this evolution. On the other hand, in 1986 the "Gozzini Law" has been approved in the penal code. We can place this law in the tradition of the legislative production focused more on giving relevance to the political identity of the individual under prosecution rather than focusing on the facts and evidences witch  should be the only interest of the judge during the trial. In 1980 the laws of the Cossiga decree was approved, law which introduced the character of collaborators during prosecution and trials dealing with armed struggle; in 1982 the law dissociation was approved; in 1987 a more comprehensive set of laws on collaborators. In this contest, the Gozzini Law goes on widen the gap between benefits and punishment. This principle of differentiation  was already considered routine in high security and special prisons, applying art. 90 of the Law which was eliminating the basic principles of the reform. When at the end 1984  the change of applying this article was highly reduced because of lacking of applications of the decree, a memorandum dated 31st October ruled that "Specialized" prisoners would have continued their convictions in the same areas where they were serving their time; more, they would be enabled to enjoy their rights and benefits only after an evaluation of the situation and considering the level of danger the individual prisoner could represent. In any case, every single moment of their conviction they would have been locked in complete isolation.

In this particular moment the Gozzini Law comes to rationalize the situation: Special Prisons will be used and administrated only evaluating the objective/subjective conditions; though not officially admitted, there was a clear difference between prisons (High Security Prisons exist but we don't face reality). As incentive: from 40 to 90 days per year of reduction in case  good conduct, social services also to inmates with convictions longer than 2 1/2 years with the chance, in case of previous guards to secure, of not going back to prison; a permit allowing 40 days a year for special reasons; social works without any surveillance.

This trend will be reinforced by Law 203/1991 which denies all the benefits included in the Gozzini Law to everyone - convicted both for social or political crimes - who won't collaborate.

The next Law approved was n. 356/1992, introducing in the Gozzini Law art. 18 bis, showed how courts were becoming branches of the Prison System and how Prison politic was influencing judiciary matters: this article authorizes investigative talks which means that agents from the AntiMafia Division are enabled to carry out interrogations without any transcript. Art 41 bis codicil 2 includes so many restrictions to the rights of the prisoners (limitation to inner relationships, to family visits and to mail) which comes easily to mind the suspect that these rulings were intended to create collaborators rather than to attenuate social dangerousness and unrest. With art. 41 there was a clear limitation to the chances of a good defense; prisoners could not follow directly their own trials, they could witness it only via videoconference.

At first glance this new Law (DPR 230/2000) showed an interesting connection between prisons and the job market ( the one of the less guaranteed).  In fact, till this moment, prison labor had always been organized and managed by prison directors; now art. 47 admitted prison labor to be managed both by private and public companies, which can influence administrative provisions and exclude inmates from this activity (art.53). And this new relationship was really deep in fact private companies had the chance to contract out "inner services" such as food, cleaning and maintenance of the buildings (art. 47 n.3).

This ruling went further into formalizing different prison circuits, underlining that following certain inputs convictions would be attenuate.

In the last period, the division between prisoners (High Security - HS - Medium Security - MS - and Low Security -LS) assuring completely different living conditions: those in HS can deal only with prisoners in their own block, they undergo corporal search each time they go out their cell; they can't work; Ms inmates have their cell always open; they can walk around their block; they don't have prison guards strictly watching then; they easily find a job; LS inmates have family visits on the outside; they have special permission and they always work.

Convictions are different not only in length but also in the quality of confinement with a double sideffect: it attenuates living conditions and it grants particular benefits.

If we add to this that the criteria for this divisions are unknown and that the allocations are decided by the Ministry or Prison Authorities, we can easily understand how will reigns without any possibility of control. Another important factor is represented by the health conditions of the prisoners, some of them affected by AIDS (most of them terminal and still locked), some of them immigrants (most of them without the money for a good defense, without any external support and unable to obtain any other form of conviction).

In conclusion we can say that the route of restructure of the Prison System has witnessed the introduction of High Security Prisons during the end of the 70s the beginning of the 80s; later on this process brought to an organic restructure of the benefits-punishment politic which helped to create  a sort of "normalization" in the prison's scenery (normalization broken  during the last spring by a series of uprisings to obtain a remission of punishment, de-penalization of certain crimes and the automation for the application of benefits), an environment where Prison Authorities are trying to eliminate every bond of solidarity through this vicious politic made of benefits and punishments. Prison reflects our social situation and we have clearly witnessed a heavy process of reshaping of values, even to an ideological level, process focused on building an individualistic subject, competitive with no sense of solidarity. But as we know not all the rubber rings go out with a hole in the middle.

We got to say that alternative forms and strategies of detention had never ever replaced prisons, on the contrary, now they both operate to control and repress.

New hints show us how this trend to reinforce the research of different forms of conviction: new security laws push to adopt security measure after the sentence of appeal; to increase surveillance in cities; to rely more on the Armed Forces, enabled to stop and arrest individuals without any warrant or control; to use electronic cuffs in case of house arrest.

In a brief essay on Prison, we cannot talk about the reality represented by Detention Centers for Immigrants. This reality concerns many thousands of people for whom there's a particular Penal Code based on their ethnicity.

Further elements which helps to draw a pessimistic scenery. We can also find some signals of reaction from the movement and from some forms of organized resistance assembled by the same immigrants.


Milano (Italy), may 2001

Ugo Giannangeli

Giuseppe pelazza