’41-bis’: Italy’s harsh prison regime under new scrutiny after anarchist protests

A 100-day hunger strike by an anarchist leader has reignited debate in Italy over the use of Western Europe’s harshest prison regime for dangerous offenders.

'41-bis': Italy's harsh prison regime under new scrutiny after anarchist protests
Mafia bosses are kept in near-total isolation in Italy under strict rules designed to prevent them from running operation from behind bars, but rights groups say these rules should not be applied to other prisoners. (File photo: Angele RICCIARDI / AFP)

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.

READ ALSO: Italian police seize €250 million and arrest 56 in latest mafia blitz

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”.

READ ALSO: Messina Denaro: How Italy caught ‘most wanted’ mafia boss after 30 years

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.

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‘Very violent’: How Italy’s youngest mafia is terrorising the Puglia region

SPECIAL REPORT: The Italian state is finally paying attention to a “fourth mafia” operating in the southern Puglia region, and experts say it's the country's youngest, least evolved, and most violent crime syndicate of all.

'Very violent': How Italy’s youngest mafia is terrorising the Puglia region

It took a loaded pistol pointed at Lazzaro D’Auria’s head for the Italian landowner to finally say yes to the demands of the country’s newest and most violent mafia.

The Puglia farmer had resisted their extortion attempts in the past; threats, fires, and damage to his crops and property.

But an early morning visit from a dozen men, including a boss with a gun, forced him to agree to their demand for 150,000 euros a year.

Instead of paying up the next day, D’Auria went to the police, making him one of the few people to ever denounce Foggia’s little-known and long-ignored mafia known for its extreme violence.

 “If more citizens pressed charges, the local mafia could be weakened,” D’Auria, who has lived under police protection since 2017, told AFP.

READ ALSO: ‘We don’t talk much here’: Silence grips Sicilian mafia boss hometown

“Citizens, speak out!” implored the 57-year-old, who sees recent crackdowns by authorities as a sign the mafia can be weakened if locals overcome their fears

Farmer Lazzaro D’Auria being escorted by police in the province of Foggia. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

Its bloody clan wars were once dismissed as farmers’ feuds, but the local mafia operating in the northern part of the Puglia region is finally setting off alarm bells inside the Italian state.

It is sometimes referred to as the ‘Fourth Mafia’ – after Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta and Naples’ Camorra.

But interest in its activities has come late, as Italy’s youngest mafia already has a stranglehold over the province.

“It’s a rudimentary, primitive mafia. Very violent, very aggressive,” said Ludovico Vaccaro, Foggia’s public prosecutor.

While the other main mafias have graduated to less visible, more profitable activities, including infiltrating the legitimate economy, the Foggia mafia is still in a nascent phase.

READ ALSO: Messina Denaro: Captured boss’s cousin speaks out against ‘mafia culture’

“Today the mafias have evolved, so they shoot less, seeking a strategy of silence to stay unnoticed,” Vaccaro said.

“Whereas this is still a mafia that, to show its power over the territory, shoots and kills.”

Foggia Public Prosecutor, Ludovico Vaccaro pictured at his office in Foggia. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

The ‘Foggia mafia’ is a catch-all label for a syndicate comprising different groups.

The province of Foggia has Italy’s third-highest homicide rate, and five of the 16 murders last year were mafia-related.

Family-based ‘battalions’ from different areas often cooperate, dividing extortion money that pays associates and prisoners.

When conflicts sometimes arise over the division of the illicit proceeds, there are quarrels and the battalions clash and start killing each other,” said deputy police chief Mario Grassia.

Each group has its speciality, from military-style armed robberies of freight trucks in Cerignola to the old-school tactics used in the city of Foggia, where nighttime bombings of storefronts and cars persuade hesitating shopkeepers to pay up.

Farmers in San Severo like D’Auria often find their olive trees felled, their harvests torched or tractors or livestock stolen.

In Gargano, whose spectacular coast welcomes tourists as well as Albanian drug shipments, the mafia is particularly violent.

The Gargano mafia’s grisly calling card, authorities say, is shooting victims in the face, or dumping them in caves.

READ ALSO: PROFILE: Ruthless Sicilian mafia boss Messina Denaro’s reign of terror

“It’s easy to hide things. Every once in a while we find something serious, stolen cars, bodies of missing people,” prosecutor Vaccaro said.

An aerial photo of the city of Foggia, southern Italy. (Photo by Giovanni GREZZI / AFP)

During a recent drive with police through the city of Foggia, AFP saw countless reminders of the bloodshed that has terrorised the population for decades.

“Right now there’s no mafia war, but there’s a settling of accounts,” said a detective who requested anonymity.

Deputy chief Grassia said he was particularly concerned by three of last year’s murders being committed by minors.

“Those participating in these gangs have kinship ties with subjects linked to organised crime,” he said.

The newest danger posed by the mafia is infiltrating public institutions. Foggia’s city council was dissolved in 2021 due to mafia infiltration and its mayor arrested on corruption charges, one of five local governments in the province dissolved since 2015.

A police detective checks inside a building in Foggia. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

In recent years a number of top bosses, including Rocco Moretti and Roberto Sinesi, have been jailed as authorities try to wrest control of the territory from the mafia.

But the upcoming release of one of their rivals, Raffaele Tolonese, and last month’s prison escape of Gargano boss Marco Raduano, underscore the challenges.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi visited Foggia in February to seek to reassure locals, pledging to reinforce security, including adding what local authorities say are badly-needed surveillance cameras and street lamps.

Beyond those basics, argued Vaccaro, more police, prosecutors and courts are desperately needed to counter the “climate of fear and intimidation, the cultural and social poverty” in the deprived area.

Only one courthouse serves the entire province, which has a backlog of over 12,000 criminal cases waiting to be tried.

“In this vast territory, either the state has control, or the criminals will take it,” said Vaccaro.

By AFP’s Alexandria Sage