The Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on work, education, gender, social inequalities and many other quality-of-life issues has obviously been more severe for some groups of people than others. Among them are female victims of domestic violence forced to spend more time at home with their abusers; precarious workers who have suffered the consequences of the economic crisis and the decline in employment; large families living in crowded houses; people without internet access for remote work or distance learning.
Another group most severely affected by the pandemic are prisoners. Although prisons are often thought of as isolated environments somewhat protected from the outside world, chronic overcrowding has led to many difficulties in managing the virus.
According to the NGO Ristretti Orizzonti (“Confined Horizons”), the public health emergency has exacerbated and drawn fresh attention to structural problems within prison systems in Italy as well as many other European countries. Together with 11 other media outlets in the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet), Openpolis collected data from 32 countries concerning the containment of the pandemic in prisons.
Prison conditions on the eve of the crisis
Before the coronavirus outbreak, at the beginning of 2020, more than 62,000 people were being detained in Italian prisons. This was the fourth highest number of prisoners in EU prison systems, after Poland, France and Germany with about 75,000, 71,000 and 63,000 prisoners respectively. Considering the total population, in 2019 in Italy there were 104 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, below the EU average of 119.6.
Since the 1990s, apart from a few dips, these numbers have been gradually increasing. In 2006 the total number of prisoners fell by 34.5 percent (from almost 60,000 to about 39,000) due to pardons for less serious crimes being approved by Law 241/2006 .
However, this was purely an emergency solution, rather than an organic one, and the number of prisoners began to rise again the following year.
Following another gradual drop from 2010 to 2015, the figures have been rising again in recent years. Despite a parallel increase in the capacity of penitentiary facilities, the number of prisoners in Italy has continued to exceed the capacity of these facilities.
Overcrowding, a systemic problem in Italian and European prisons
Prison overcrowding – the number of inmates in excess of the facility’s regular capacity – occurs in quite a number of EU Member States.
According to the council of Europe , this phenomenon is explained by the fact that in many EU countries there has been a gradual expansion of the range of crimes punishable by imprisonment (petty crime, for example), while at the same time there has been a lack of reorganisation in the prison system to respond to these changes.
Some countries have built new prisons, or at least increased their available capacity. While this partly addresses the problem of overcrowding, it clearly has no effect on the rate of imprisonment. The situation is also aggravated by an increase in the average length of sentences.
In other words, in these countries the total number of prisoners exceeds the total number of available places, which leads to overcrowding. Italian prisons are among the most overcrowded in Europe, with about 120 inmates per 100 available places, surpassed only by Cyprus, with 134.6. The country wit