Prison: brief historical excursus and its evolution in Italy

The situation in Italian prisons still seems to be in limbo: on the one hand, steps are being taken to implement improvements, but on the other, there still seem to be many problems which unfortunately do not find an easy solution.


 Prison was born when the need was felt to remove individuals from the community who violated the order of society. In reality, in ancient times it was mainly used to guard the offender pending the penalty for his own crime. The Roman punitive system was characterized mainly by private penalties, of a pecuniary type, or by public penalties, such as flogging. In both cases the prison acted as containment for the offender and not as a coercive measure. In feudal society the situation does not change: the prison, in fact, remains a temporary passage of the guilty pending the application of the “punishment of the Lord”, the only true court of that period (Neppi Madona, 1976). The first “workhouse” or “house of correction” will then be developed in England,

In reality, it will be necessary to wait until the 19th century to consider imprisonment as the main sanctioning instrument (Neppi Madona, 1976). The industrialization process, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, brought with it a transformation not only economic, but also political and social. In this period, the growing demand for labor combined with the new public sensitivity lead to an overcoming of obsolete forms of punishment that do not use the work force of the condemned. Furthermore, this period is characterized by four major changes, as reported by Cohen in 1985 (cited in Vianello, 2012): the greater involvement of the state in controlling deviance; the development of scientific knowledge related to crime, which allows the differentiation of deviants in different categories; the development of institutions aimed at segregation; the perception of a punishment no longer aimed at the body but also at the mind, which tries to change the criminal’s personality. In this climate of reform and human and social progress, the evolution of the penitentiary is inserted. The change is also favored by Enlightenment thinkers, including the Italian Cesare Beccaria, with his Dei delitti e delle penalty, which allow the passage from an idea of ​​punishment, now barbaric and antiquated, to a more human and modern, organized and centralized. This passage, however, is not so linear and uniform; in fact for a long time, for lack of resources, and not only, the prison remains a place of neglect and squalor (Neppi Madona, 1976). We will have to wait until the second half of the 19th century to see a modern form of penitentiary emerge.

To understand this so substantial change we find three models of historical explanation identified by Cohen in 1985 (cited in Vianello, 2012):

Despite the changes of this period, which are followed by innovative objectives related to the function of the penalty, prison remains an inefficient, overcrowded and often violent institution, which is unable to fulfill the pre-established re-educational purposes (Neppi Madona, 1976). The substantial change, albeit partial, will take place during the twentieth century in which, thanks to the introduction of the welfare state and rehabilitation programs, the penitentiary becomes more flexible and humane (Vianello, 2012). In line with this change we find the “minimum rules”, indicated by the UN Resolution in 1955, which implement article 10 of the United Nations Pact, which claims that every

The natural development of these rules is found in the European Penitentiary Rules of 1987, which further underline the fact that the deprivation of liberty must not imply the deprivation of human dignity. All detained people must be treated with respect for human rights; prison conditions must approach the conditions of life in free society; we must promote the reintegration of prisoners into society and encourage cooperation with external social services (Vianello, 2012). These are just some of the principles, which have as their ultimate goal that of making detention a real rehabilitation and not a mere coercion of bodies.

This brief historical excursus also applies to our country which, after the unification of 1861, begins a long process of humanizing the punishment. A great impediment to the modernization of the prison is represented by the fascist period and the 1930 Rocco Code (Neppi Madona, 1976). The Rocco regulation is characterized by a clear separation between the prison world and the outside world and the prisoners are isolated and identified with the serial number. The prison once again proposes itself as an institution closed to the outside, isolated from the rest of the world, in which it does not aim at re-education, but only at segregation. This situation slowly begins to change after the Second World War, also thanks to the minimum rules imposed by the UN in 1955 until the penitentiary reform of 1975 is reached (Vianello, 2012). The law of 26 July 1975 n. 354, consisting of ninety-one articles, is divided into two parts, one relating to penitentiary treatment and one relating to prison organization. In September 2000, law 230/2000 entered into force as an executive regulation of the 1975 regulation (Vianello, 2012). This new regulation pays great attention to the rights of prisoners, especially those of an emotional nature, but also to hygiene and health conditions and work activities with the involvement of external structures. Although the Italian penitentiary regulation is extremely positive, this law unfortunately remains a manifest law: in reality these rules are hardly applied. There is often a great inconsistency within the Italian prisons because, despite the regulation trying to humanize the penitentiary structures, we find ourselves in front of prison institutions that aim to implement a re-education of the offender or the use of alternative paths to detention in only partially (Vianello, 2012).

The Italian penitentiary regulation, approved in September 2000, opens with article 1, which in paragraph 1, states that

and continues, in paragraph 2 stating that

Despite the excellent setting of the law, at least from the point of view of ideals, the situation in Italy is extremely problematic and this is well highlighted by the XV report of the Antigone Association (Associazione Antigone, 2019). The association stresses that one of the main problems of Italian prisons remains overcrowding, so much so that, in 2019, there were 60,439 prisoners, for an overcrowding rate of 120%, one of the highest in Europe, despite the fact that there was a decline in crime.

Another problem of Italy is linked to prisoners in pre-trial detention who continue to grow over the years, up to a total of 9,565 as at 31 December 2018, or 32.8% of the detainees are awaiting a final sentence. It is important to underline how in 2017 in 60.4% of suicide cases the subject was without a conviction (Associazione Antigone, 2019). A definitely striking figure is that related to suicides, in fact 2018 closed with 67 suicides; it was from 2009 that there was no such data. In conjunction with this data, it is necessary to consider how other critical events, such as malaise, acts of self-harm, acts of containment, attempted suicides, demonstrations of individual and collective protest, have been increasing since 2015. They are also increasing also acts of aggression between prisoners and against prison police personnel, disciplinary offenses and disciplinary isolation. On December 31, 2017, there were 14,706 drug addict prisoners out of a population of 57,608, or 25.53%.

Finally, it is appropriate to underline the requests for help made by the prisoners to the Ombudsman of Antigone. The reports relate to the lack of various rights, including health, territoriality, work, training, study and so on. Other problems are obviously related to the overcrowding of prison spaces but also to the violence by the prison police (Associazione Antigone, 2019). The Italian situation still seems to be in limbo: on the one hand, steps are being taken to implement improvements, but on the other, there still seem to be many problems which unfortunately do not find an easy solution.