Around 730 people in Italy are subject to the country’s highly restrictive detention regime known as ‘41-bis’, which means near-total isolation and severe restrictions on family visits.
This treatment is reserved for mafia bosses and other offenders deemed highly dangerous, and there’s little appetite in the country to soften it.
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But a 100-day hunger strike by one prisoner under this regime, anarchist Alfredo Cospito, has renewed debate over the use of 41-bis and forced the Italian government to defend it.
Cospito, 55, was placed under the regime after being sentenced to a total of three decades in jail for two separate attacks.
He has been on a hunger strike for more than 100 days at a prison in Sardinia in protest at treatment and conditions which supporters say amount to torture.
Anarchists around Europe are “targeting Italy” in violent protests over Cospito’s worsening health, the Italian foreign minister said on Tuesday, with last weekend alone seeing Italy’s consulate in Barcelona vandalised, a diplomat’s car in Berlin set ablaze and a molotov cocktail hurled at a Rome police station.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government called a press conference to announce that Cospito’s 41-bis status would not be revoked, but said the prisoner had been transferred to a Milan prison with an on-site health clinic.
First created as an emergency measure amid mafia bombings in the 1980s and 90s, Article 41-bis of the penal code has become a key weapon in the state’s arsenal against organised crime. It can also be applied to other violent crimes and terrorism.
“In Western and Northern Europe this regime is the strictest for dangerous and organised criminals,” Anna Sergi, a professor of criminology at the University of Essex, told AFP.
Restrictions include isolation in single cells away from the main prison population, limited yard time in small groups, and one short monthly visit with family members, separated by a glass wall.
Books and newspapers sent from outside prison are prohibited.
In cutting off prisoners’ communication with the outside, the goal is to stop mafia bosses from running their organisations from behind bars.
It also aims to convince them to turn state witness – only by collaborating with authorities can inmates be put under a less harsh regime.
Despite campaigns to abolish it, many in Italy “associate this regime with mafiosi, and there is a strong feeling that mafiosi deserve it no matter what”, said Sergi.
But it remains controversial.
In 2019, the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee said the restrictions “pose a threat to the subtle balance between the fight against organised crime and the preservation of a tenuous sense of the concept of rehabilitation”.
Both the European Court of Human Rights and Italy’s Constitutional Court have upheld 41-bis but called for modifications, such as an end to the censorship of inmate-lawyer correspondence and allowing inmates to cook in their cells.
Matteo Messina Denaro, the Cosa Nostra boss arrested in Sicily on January 16th after 30 years on the run, is among those placed under 41-bis.
But prisoner rights group Antigone says the decision to apply the regime to anarchist Cospito is “an exaggeration”.
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He was put under 41-bis last May, for four years, after being found to have maintained contacts with anarchists from jail.
Judged to be the leader of Italy’s Informal Anarchist Federation, Cospito was sentenced in 2014 to nearly 11 years in prison for shooting the chief executive of a nuclear power company in the knee two years earlier.
He was later handed a separate 20-year sentence for setting two homemade bombs outside a police barracks in 2006, a crime the courts deemed terrorist in nature.
In December, a Rome court rejected an appeal by Cospito’s lawyers to remove him from 41-bis, citing his deteriorating health. A new appeal is now before the Supreme Court, with a hearing set for March 7.