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  • Italy Frees Inmates
    The Italian government's decision to release about 12,000 people from the country's prison system sparks debate
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    AUGUST 6, 2006 - Imagine a prison population bursting at it seams with four or five inmates to one tiny cell and worse conditions than some third-world countries. That's how some experts have described Italy's prisons, which until last week were housing 61,000 criminals in a system designed to hold no more than 42,500.

    The overcrowding problem led to the ratification of a law to trim three years off sentences for certain crimes. Although the law does not apply to mobsters, pedophiles, rapists or terrorists, it did result in the release of 12,000 inmates last week. And that has some Italians fuming and politicos speculating about the longevity of Prime Minister Romano Prodi's government.

    Already some of the freed prisoners are back in jail. One man, who had been serving a sentence for domestic abuse, tried to kill his ex-wife after being released. Another man tried to rob a restaurant. Another smashed a window of a pizzeria in Genoa, others tried to steal cars in Trieste and Brescia and yet another attempted to shoplift jeans in Bologna, according to The Independent, a U.K.-based publication.

    While these crimes caused worry, one of the possible ramifications of the release is causing sheer terror. About 20 of the freed inmates are suspected of having links to terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda, but had been jailed for other crimes, according to the Associated Press. There is a fascinating and disturbing entry about this on the Counterterrorism Blog. Police are closely watching these suspects even though they are out of prison, according to various reports. But that's not helping Italians sleep easy at night.

    Many Italians have expressed concern for their safety and wonder if this is only a temporary solution. Prodi's opposition is citing this as an example of incompetence that might contribute to the fall of this already shaky government, which beat Silvio Berlusconi by the slightest of margins in the spring.

    Prodi stands by the law. "This measure was an urgent one needed to prevent the already serious prison situation [from] getting any worse," he said when wrapping up for summer vacation, according to the ANSA news agency.

    In fact, many felt this was a long time coming. The law is something for which the late Pope John Paul II had hoped. He asked for amnesty in clemency measures for prisoners around the world during the 2000 Holy Year, and specifically asked Italian lawmakers to reduce sentences in 2002, according to Catholic.org.

    Some Italians are more concerned about the rehabilitation of the freed prisoners and the well being of these former criminals in the outside world. Many organizations designed to help freed inmates expressed concern that their groups would be overwhelmed with so many people coming out at once and needing their help.

    But the news isn't all bad. Recently, the Italians have offered more opportunities to prisoners to work from the inside. A deal with Telecom Italia has inmates serving as operators for call centers. Think of it as America's 411 system. Security measures have been taken so that the prisoners can only answer calls and can not make them.

    Many human rights groups argue that giving the prisoners such work is important. Criminals often lack the skills and confidence that are necessary to truly reform themselves and avoid turning to crime again if and when they are released. And Italy has a great track record for educating prisoners. Many Italian jails teach prisoners how to make wine and grow fruits and vegetables or train guide dogs for the blind. Almost all of the prisons have their own operatic and singing societies.

    Still, this new law to release prisoners could have serious repercussions. There's no telling what can happen if you free prisoners before they are reformed or before they are prepared to face society and overcome the obvious challenges of returning to civilization. Maybe Italian politicians will now consider building more prisons instead of letting people, some of whom have committed serious crimes, be among the rest of us before they are ready.

    Di Meglio is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. For more information on her work, please visit www.francescadimeglio.com.

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