41bis and life without parole: the Italian-style institutionalised death

Since October, Italy has been following the accelerated journey towards the death of a prisoner, an anarchist, and a terrorist: Alfredo Cospito.

By Alessia Mandagilo

Since October, Italy has been following the accelerated journey towards the death of a prisoner, an anarchist, and a terrorist: Alfredo Cospito.

Cospito has been sentenced to the so-called “hard prison”, a special regime applicable under article 41bis of the Italian penal code to specific crimes that pose a risk to public security, mainly terrorism and organised crime. He also received life without parole, a measure usually applied to those prisoners who do not collaborate with justice.

So far you may say that this is fine and see no issue with this punishment, after all, we are talking about crimes that have marked Italian history since the 1960s. And yet, I just can’t agree. Not when 41bis and life without parole have turned into an opportunity to vent the vengeful wrath of an entire nation, oblivious of what the Constitution – and European law – demand of us.

The current confirmation of 41bis dates back to the murder of judge Giovanni Falcone, a symbol of the fight against the mafia, in 1992. It allows the suspension of the ordinary regime of detention and treatment of prisoners for those who are considered dangerous and suspected of still influencing people outside of prison.

Cospito is the first anarchist subject to this extreme regime. And the decision to apply life without parole to his case appears fully political and disproportionate. One of the terrorist attacks he was convicted for, which caused no victims and did not wound anyone, has been judged as a “massacre against state security” – not even the Capaci massacre in which Falcone and his escort were killed or other major terrorist attacks that occurred in Italy were defined as such.

When it comes to 41bis and life without parole in Italy, of course, one must start with the law. What were thought to be temporary and exceptional measures to fight against the mafia, have now become ordinary administration, regardless of various rulings by the European Court of Human Rights and the interventions of the Constitutional Court. Life without parole was even ruled unconstitutional, yet the Meloni government decided to reconfirm it.

Though life without parol cannot merely be reduced to a legal issue. We are facing a State that has chosen psychological and physical annihilation as the winning card against people who should instead be re-educated, as the Constitution commands.

41bis consists of inmates being obliged to be silent in a single cell, with only two hours of social time per day in groups of up to four people (strictly selected by the prison administration) and are allowed one hour-long video-monitored meeting per month behind a glass partition. Only those who do not meet with relatives may be allowed, after the first six months, one ten-minute phone call per month. They have only two hours of air a day, to be spent in a concrete cubicle of just a few square metres surrounded by high walls and overhung by wire mesh. No books or photos are allowed without authorisation. This sensorial deprivation could be easily defined as torture. One of the few ways you are going to be heard – and maybe the last freedom granted to prisoners – is by going on a hunger strike, which is exactly what Cospito decided to do.

Professor Tullio Padovani has his say on the subject: “As required by European legislation, an adult pig must have at least six square metres of free area. We put the prisoner in the place of the pig”. Nevertheless, in Italy, it is nearly impossible to talk about 41bis and life parole without being accused of not being anti-mafia enough, and even less is possible to talk about prison in general. The Italian penitentiary system is essentially pathological and crime-generating: it induces mental health issues, self-harm, and death (more than 80 people committed suicide in 2022 alone) and at the same time reproduces crime and criminals. Do not forget also that more than 200 guards are now under investigation for torture.

However, looking at the progress of the Cospito case (although on hunger strike since October and close to death, the 41bis regime was recently confirmed by the Court of Cassation), it is clear that Italy is not yet ready for a punishment that is effectively based on the principles of humanity and re-education. I wonder if the constituents, especially those who had been in fascist prisons, expected the return of the country to an era of revenge and annihilation.

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