The situation of prisons in Italy, between overcrowding and Covid-19

Italy is once again in first place for prison overcrowding throughout the European Union. The data of the Report of the Council of Europe "Space" that, every year, takes stock of the situation on the prisons in the EU countries confirms it.

However, Italy is not the only country in the region to suffer from the problem of overcrowded prisons. There are other states, belonging to the European Union and not, to suffer from a similar problem.

At the end of January 2020 in Italy there were 120 inmates for every 100 places. Similar situations exist in Belgium with 117 inmates for every 100 places; France and Cyprus with 116 inmates; Romania and Hungary with 113 inmates; Slovenia and Greece with 109 for every 100 places. Also, to be taken into consideration is the serious situation in a neighboring but non-EU country, Turkey, which with 127 detainees for every 100 places has reached a record high.

Examining specifically, and with more current data, the situation in Italy, we note how during 2020 the outbreak of the pandemic caused a strong counter-trend in the number of prisoners.

While on December 31, 2019, the prison population reached over 60 thousand, exactly one year later, on December 31, 2020, a total of 53,364 presences are recorded in Italian penitentiaries. A figure in contrast given the constant growth that the prison population has experienced in all these years.

Certainly, the Covid-19 pandemic that has affected both inmates and prison staff has caused such a sudden drop. However, overcrowding continues to be a constant and critical issue in the country and in some regions specifically.

According to the most updated data from the Ministry of Justice, the situation as of May 31, 2021 is as follows:

with a planned regulatory capacity of 50,780, the inmates present are 53,660. Of these, 2,224 are women and 16,940 are foreigners.

The regions with the highest number of penitentiary institutions are Tuscany with 16 institutions, Lombardy with 18 institutions and Sicily with a total of 23 institutions. But the regions with a number of prisoners that far exceeds the regulatory capacity are Lombardy, with 7,777 prisoners on 6,139 places available, and Apulia with 3,688 prisoners on 2,882 places.

The current situation certainly sees a prison population with lower numbers compared to the period before the pandemic, but the same numbers confirm that the country still suffers from the problem of overcrowding.

The foreign inmate population in the prison system has also declined in recent years (not just during the pandemic). While there were approximately 19.9 thousand foreign inmates as of December 31, 2019, by the end of 2020 the number had risen to approximately 17.3 thousand, to result in updated data as of May 31, 2021 at 16.9 thousand.

The same could be said of the female prison population. At the end of 2019, there were 2,663 women in prison, and at the end of 2020 there were 2,255. More current are the figures for May 2021, which put the number at 2,224.

Returning to the general national situation, there are actually more prisoners than the number envisaged by the regulations. Despite, therefore, the drop in inmates due to the Covid-19 virus, the problem of overcrowding persists.

Solutions to combat this problem could be to "reduce the length of sentences" or to "build more prisons," as argued by Professor Marcelo Aebi, responsible for the "Space" report mentioned above. "Amnesties, like the one in 2006, do not solve the problem," added the Professor.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the adoption of measures aimed at containing contagions was worrying, but with limited effects. Often there was a lack of suitable spaces for the isolation of positive inmates; to add to this, the "scarcity of health services and medical assistance", as reported by the Regional Guarantor of Prisoners' Rights. Moreover, to all this was added the prolonged isolation of detainees given the suspension of visits by family members and third parties.

The advent of Covid-19 has created a crisis of different types and unprecedented worldwide. And here it was recognized that the protection of health, as well as that of people's rights, had become essential.

Persons deprived of their liberty fit fully into the category of so-called 'fragile subjects', and as such, different provisions should be made towards them.

The respect of social distancing to contain the virus, in addition to the social isolation to which prisoners are subjected during their sentence, makes it even more difficult for the individual to live in prison. Isolation and lack of physical contact lead to loneliness, closure and depression, when support and closeness are needed.

In view of all this, it becomes essential, as well as urgent, the intervention of the authorities for appropriate measures in favor of the right to health and rights in general of prisoners.

Transparency on the actual situation in prisons and monitoring of the effective application of preventive measures, are just some of the steps to ensure that people deprived of freedom have the rights to which they are entitled.

Organizations such as Amnesty International are taking an interest in the current situation, committing themselves to fighting and solving the problems that the prison system suffers from.

The website of the organization reports: "Amnesty International Italy has joined the initiative promoted by the Association Antigone and Anpi, Arci, Cgil, Gruppo Abele and the letter addressed to the government and the parliamentarians of the Committee on Justice of the House and Senate, also supported by Acat, Ristretti, National Conference Voluntary Justice-CNVG, CSD - Diaconia Valdese, Uisp Bergamo and InOltre Progressive Alternative.

In addition, "the measures that were intended to be proposed are:

1. The reduction of crowding and numerical presences in prison, through the introduction of alternative measures that protect especially vulnerable people and with health problems such as to risk aggravation due to the Covid-19 virus

2. The reduction of the isolation of prisoners, through the introduction of alternatives that allow constant contact with families

3. The prevention of infection and support for prison staff, also by strengthening health care in penitentiary institutions".

Translated by Francesca Cioffi

Original version by Sofia Abourachid


- Carceri italiane: la situazione oggi, dopo un anno di Covid-19. Osservatorio diritti


- Detenuti presenti - aggiornamento al 31 maggio 2021. Ministero della Giustizia 

- Le carceri italiane le più sovraffollate dell’Unione Europea. 

- Preoccupazione di Amnesty International Italia per la situazione esplosiva nelle carceri italiane. Amnesty International Italia 

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  • L'Autore

    Sofia Abourachid

    Dottoressa in Scienze Politiche, Relazioni Internazionali e Diritti Umani con Laurea acquisita presso l’Università degli Studi di Padova.

    Dottoressa Magistrale in Relazioni Internazionali curriculum di Diplomazia e Organizzazioni Internazionali con Laurea acquisita presso l’Università degli Studi di Milano.

    Appassionata di diritti umani e di tutto ciò che concerne il sociale, tra cui tematiche di uguaglianze di genere, minori, donne, immigrati e terzo settore. Altrettanto appassionata di storia e di politica internazionale, così come di formazione, comunicazione, e percorsi di motivazione.

    Con la sua storia, le origini arabe, e skills personali, in Mondo Internazionale ha ricoperto la carica di Project Manager per il progetto TrattaMI Bene; oggi, oltre ad essere Editor, ricopre il ruolo di Chief Editor dell'area Diritti Umani.


    Graduated in Political Science, International Relations and Human Rights with a Degree from the University of Padua.

    Master's Degree in International Relations, Diplomacy and International Organizations
    curriculum with a Degree from the University of Milan.

    She is interested in human rights and everything related to social issues, including gender equality, minors, women, immigrants and the third sector. She is equally passionate about history and international politics, as well as training, communication, motivation and personal growth.

    With her personal history, her arab origins, and personal skills, in Mondo Internazionale she held the role of Project Manager for the TrattaMI Bene project; today, in addition to being Editor, she also holds the role of Chief Editor of the Human Rights area.


Sections Human Rights Society


humanrights DirittiUmani jail prison carcere

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