ROME — A European court ruled Tuesday that Italy's woefully overcrowded prisons violate the basic rights of inmates, fined the government (EURO)100,000 ($131,000) and ordered it to make changes within a year. The finding came three years after Italy's government recognized the problem itself but failed to pass legislation designed to correct it.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled on a case brought in 2009 by seven inmates in two separate prisons who complained that they each were forced to share a 9 square-meter (10.8-squard yard) cell with two other people, giving each inmate 3 square meters (3.6 square yards) of personal space. The men also said they didn't have regular hot water or lighting.
The Strasbourg-based court found that the conditions did indeed amount to a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights' prohibition against torture and human or degrading treatment. While saying there was no indication that Italy intended to humiliate the prisoners, the court found that the inmates' conditions subjected them to excessive hardships.
Italian Justice Minister Paola Severino, who had made reforming Italy's prison system a priority when she came into office a year ago, said she was "disheartened" but not surprised by the decision.
The Italian government in 2010 declared a state of emergency for its overcrowded prisons, calling for the creation of 47 prison annexes to boost capacity by more than 20,000 inmates and for legislation allowing house arrest as an alternative to prison for certain sentences.
The Italian prison rights group Antigone estimates that Italian prisons are currently at 142 percent capacity, with some individual prisons at 268 percent capacity.
The legislation, however, failed to pass in the Senate last year – a point bitterly raised by Severino and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who in his end-of-the-year speech to lawmakers lamented their failure to act on such a critical issue.
In a statement Tuesday, Napolitano called the Strasbourg court's decision a "mortifying confirmation" of Italy's inability to guarantee its prisoners their most basic rights.
Severino, for her part, harshly criticized politicians for having "campaigned on the skin of inmates" and promised that she would continue battling so that Italian prison conditions "are worthy of a civilized country."
The court used what's known as a pilot judgment for the case – a procedure used when there are many similar complaints before the court that enables it to not only determine if a violation has occurred but also to offer ways to address the root problem responsible for it. In the case of Italian prison overcrowding, there are several hundred complaints currently before the court.
The ruling will become final in three months unless either side seeks further examination by the court.
Once final, the court's rulings are binding on the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, the continent's human rights watchdog.