A prisoner appears in the window of Regina Coeli jail in Rome/
A prisoner appears in the window of Regina Coeli jail in Rome. Reuters

Prisons across Europe are facing an overcrowding crisis -- a manifestation of at least three trends: tougher sentencing by judges (particularly for drug-related offenses), a painfully slow justice system and lack of money to build new facilities to accommodate the excess number of inmates.

This crisis is particularly acute in Italy, where correctional facilities are bursting at the seams with an avalanche of convicted men and women.

According to the Prison Observatory of Antigone, a Rome-based prisoners' rights organization, almost 67,000 inmates are housed in Italian facilities that were designed to hold only 45,000 -- meaning they are at a capacity of more than 140 percent, among the highest rates in the European Union, where the average capacity is just under 100 percent.

The situation in Italian prisons has become so grave that in January of this year, the European Court of Human Rights declared that Italy had just one year to improve conditions in the country's prisons, while ordering Rome to fork over 100,000 euros ($132,000) to seven inmates who raised a test case with the court.

“Their conditions of detention had subjected them to hardship of an intensity exceeding the unavoidable level of suffering inherent in detention, and violated the European Convention on Human Rights’ prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” the court stated.

Italy's president Giorgio Napolitano (who has no real power to influence public policy) agreed with the court's ruling, saying it amounted to "a mortifying confirmation of the persistent failure of our state to guarantee the basic rights of detainees awaiting judgment and serving sentences.”

He added that "decisions can no longer be postponed to overcome a degrading reality for the inmates and for the prison guards.”

Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri concurred, complaining that Italy's prison system represented an embarrassment to a civilized country.

Three years ago, having declared a state of emergency in the nation's prisons, the government unveiled a plan to spend 675 million euros ($900 million in 2013 currency) to build 11 new prisons and as well as extensions to existing jails.

But the financial collapse has largely scuttled that program.

As in France, many Italians are being jailed for minor crimes -- about 60 percent of convicted prisoners are serving terms of less than three years. Moreover, about 38 percent of all inmates in Italy are drug offenders (versus figures of 14 percent in Germany and France and 15 percent in England and Wales).

In addition, 42 percent of Italy’s prisoners are pre-trial detainees (versus a European average of 28.5 percent); while more than one-third of inmates are immigrants.

"There are so many people awaiting trial for six, seven, eight months," said Cesare Cececotto, an inmate at Regina Coeli, a famous prison in Rome.

Another inmate named Giuseppe Rampello complained to Reuters about the large number of foreigners in prison.

"We are talking about a prison where you can be in a cell with people with six different languages, six different habits, where there is one who prays as an observant Muslim five times a day and another who swears five times a minute," the 63-year-old inmate said.

"There is one who eats pork and one who cannot bear to look at it. There is one who never washes and one who washes all the time. This is the problem. Even if you locked up people for 10 days with their husband or wife, I think half of them would run away. If instead you take a bunch of people like a mini United Nations, it is a disaster when there is only one toilet, when everybody brings their own culture to the bathroom.”

In northern prisons, foreigners far outnumber Italians – Antigone said that in jails in Milan and Vicenza, more than 60 percent of inmates are foreign, while in the mountain territories of Trentino Alto Adige and Valle d’Aosta, the proportion reaches nearly 70 percent.

Cececotto quipped that as the only Italian in his cell, “Thank God, I speak a bit of English and a bit of Spanish.”

In its 2012 report, Antigone declared that "the heart of the prison problem is the penal code.”

Napolitano's wish to reform prison sentencing guidelines was compromised by political infighting and the change in government earlier this year.

"Something must be done because the prisons are close to collapse," a senior prison official, Margherita Marras, told Reuters.

Not surprisingly, overcrowded prisons present a dangerous security risk as well.

"Everybody knows there is a problem of overcrowding but nobody addresses it. In a cell with six people there should [only] be two to four... Tensions are born in the cell," an inmate named Luigi Murra told Reuters.

"The justice system is another problem. It is very slow. There are an enormous number of trials."

An inmate named Claudio told Inter Press Service about conditions in his Vicenza facility in March 2013 -- where he had to share a 7.6 square-meter (80 square foot) cell with two other people and stay there 21 hours per day.

“Once you excluded the space taken up by beds and drawers, each inmate was left with 90 centimeters (35 inches) to himself. We had to take it in turns to stand up,” he said.

“There was no possibility for (inmates) to engage in any activity.”

The crisis in Italy’s prisons is nothing new. As long ago as 1995, the New York Times published an article warning: “Bursting Population Overwhelms Italy’s Prisons.” That piece, written by Celestine Bohlen, noted for example that so many prisoners were housed in Milan’s San Vittorio facility that police were forced to relocate some 400 inmates elsewhere, some to as far away as the isle of Sardinia.

At that time, Italy had 54,000 prisoners in a system designed to hold only 29,000.

After almost two decades the problem has only worsened.

“The continuous increase in the jails overcrowding and the significant presence of foreign prisoners makes pursuing the rehabilitative aim of punishment extremely complex and often in vain,” Napolitano told the head of the Italian prison administration department.

Overcrowded jails are also triggering dozens of suicides every year.

The non-profit organization Ristretti Orizzonti (Narrow Horizons) reported that 60 prisoners in Italy killed themselves last year and that since 2000, almost 800 inmates have taken their own lives.

But Antigone believes the construction of new prisons is not an answer (even if it were financially feasible).

Alessio Scandurra, coordinator of Antigone, told IPS that the “solution to overcrowding is not building new structures, because that is a system that creates its own demand: the more prisons you build, the more they will get filled.”

Ornella Favero, director of Ristretti Orizzonti, said overcrowding could be relieved by providing a significant number of inmates, especially pre-trial detainees and non-violent drug offenders, access to noncustodial sanctions, including alternatives like fines, community service, house arrest and treatment for drug addiction.

In Spain, Germany and France, more than 100,000 convicts are outside of prison walls – the corresponding figure in Italy is less than 20,000.

“These are definitely the countries we should look at when it comes to non-custodial sanctions,” Scandurra said.