ROME - Crouched on bunk beds in the narrow cells of the Regina Coeli lockup in Rome, prisoners say Italy still has a long way to go to ease a chronic overcrowding problem condemned by the European Court of Human Rights.
"Six people in one small cell are too much. There's only room for one person to stand. With one bathroom and a tiny kitchen, tensions rise," says Antonio, one of 920 prisoners in a 19th-century jail built for 643. Italy was given 12 months by the Strasbourg court last year to improve cramped living conditions it said "violate basic human rights", but despite efforts at reform the deadline passed last week and the country's jails still exceed capacity by 15,000 inmates.
Prison rights group Antigone found cases of scabies on recent inspections, as well as mould, dirty bathrooms and open toilets next to kitchen stoves. "We're packed in like sardines. Even the air doesn't circulate," said 38-year-old Marco, as he watched a fierce game of table football in the tiny common room. Last January, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the government to pay 100,000 euros ($135,450) to seven prisoners who brought the so-called Torreggiani case over their living conditions.
It has received 6,829 other complaints. Antonio, Spanish father-of-one caught smuggling hashish into Italy, praised new measures brought it to cut jailbird numbers, including relaxing penalties for selling or possessing cannabis. Prison unions had blamed harsher sentences for overcrowding -- with around 40 per cent of the prison population doing time for soft drugs -- and estimate that some 10,000 people could now be released.
Inmates can now also get longer discounts on their term -- 75 days for every six months served, up from 45 days -- as well as doing community service instead of jail for sentences of up to four years, though violent crimes are excluded. The Council of Europe last week backed the reforms, noting "an important and continuing drop in the prison population," down from around 68,000 people in 2012 to 59,000 today.
However, Luigi Manconi, head of the Senate's commission for human rights, insists many jails are still overflowing and prisoners are not getting the eight hours outside their cells recommended by the Council for medium-security prisons. In the Poggyioreale prison in Naples, for example, where 2,000 jailbirds are squeezed into space designed for 1,400, around 80 per cent of prisoners are kept shut in their cells 23 hours a day, he said.
And while all convicts are now guaranteed three square metres (32 square feet) of living space, watchdog Antigone warned recreational areas were being sacrificed. "Many common rooms have been transformed into cells and there's no money to spend on building gyms or sports fields, so inmates spend their free time just pacing the poorly-ventilated corridors," said Antigone's Alessio Scandurra.
"We also need more people learning trades to give them a chance to get work on the outside. Over half of inmates in Italy are repeat offenders," he said. Nicola, 26, who has served three years of a 10-year sentence, said he was saved from "the overcrowding, lack of staff, and resulting chaos" by spending much of his day working in the laundry, as "one of the lucky ones to have a job".
According to Mauro Palma, adviser to the ministry of justice on prison overcrowding, the European Court of Human Rights has given Italy another year under observation before it will decide whether or not to slap Rome with a hefty fine. Giuseppe, 64, who is doing 14 years for helping his terminally-ill wife to die, said that he was grateful to be in one of Regina Coeli's newly refurbished wings, but Italy still had "a lot left to do" to improve conditions.
"Imagine what forced cohabitation is like when the mix of human and inhuman you get in cells is cramped together in tiny spaces. Tempers run very high."