ROME, Italy — Prisons are, by design, unpleasant places to stay. But what really kept Pasquale — a 45-year-old Sicilian father of four — awake at night was the thought of life outside prison.
Real jobs had never been his forte and for years he had made ends meet with less-than-clear business ventures or the odd short-term contract. Now, family members have turned their backs on him and he carries the stigma of serving time for a Mafia murder — despite his eventual acquittal.
His only option, it appeared, would be to embrace the criminal life, and the people he had met while in prison in the small town of Caltagirone, in central Sicily, were only too eager to help.
His story is typical of Italian inmates. Generally, seven out of 10 people jailed end up back in prison. Most of the time, those who have been convicted for a minor offense end up committing a worse one after having spent time in jail. Alessio Scandurra, who works at Antigone, an association that monitors the condition of Italy's prisons, said overcrowding plays a big role in this phenomenon.
According to Prison Police data, there are 68,000 inmates in Italy's jails, which have a collective capacity of less than 45,000 and an occupancy rate of 152 percent — basically, three people sleep where there is room for two. This makes Italy's prisons the most overcrowded in Europe, except for Bulgaria.
Forty-one inmates have committed suicide since the beginning of 2010, and 120 have tried. Associations like Antigone blame most of those on the living conditions and on the slow pace of the judicial system.
According to Scandurra, the "zero tolerance" policies of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government are directly to blame for the overcrowding. In the last few years, he said, laws against drug use and illegal immigrants had been toughened and many inmates — including a large proportion of foreigners — imprisoned on minor charges.
According to Scandurra, 36 percent of Italy's inmates were in jail for drug-related offenses, against a European average of 16 percent.
Overcrowding — together with reductions in prison personnel forced by the global economic crisis — also heightens tensions in prisons. Prison protests are frequent and often lead to bloodshed: a week ago, five wardens were seriously injured while suppressing a riot in the Campania region.
Finding a way out of the re-offending spiral can prove impossible.
Pasquale counts himself lucky. On appeal, a judge acquitted him after he'd served only one year. He would, he said, have ended up back in prison had the judge not also enlisted him to work at the Mario and Luigi Sturzo Center, which offers former inmates the chance to learn workplace skills.
Pasquale underwent training and now tends orange and lemon trees in Sicily's praised orchards. Others have learned the traditional craft of painting on ceramic tiles from local masters.
Anna Orlando, who runs the center on behalf of Renewal in the Spirit, a Catholic movement, said that at any given time around 20 current and former convicts were being trained at the center.
“None of them has ended up in jail again,” she said. “Data show that offering inmates a job opportunity when leaving prison slashes the rate of those who re-offend by 90 percent."
Last month, Italy's Justice Ministry decided to take the center's model nationwide, creating a national employment exchange for prisoners with funding of 4.8 million euros (more than $6 million). Convicts will be provided with job training and work experience. They will also have a chance to continue in these jobs once they finish serving their terms. It is estimated that the project will involve around 6,000 people in the first three years.
Justice Minister Angelino Alfano hopes such programs will help take pressure off the country's overcrowded prisons. Italy's constitution demands that punishment “must aim at re-educating the convicted." But until now funding for policies aimed at preventing re-offending have been practically non-existent: just eight euro cents (about one dime) out of a daily expense per inmate of 113 euros (about $145).
The government is convinced the Caltagirone model can help steer prison reform in Italy. But Antigone remains skeptical of the lavish funding given to an association that has, until now, just run a single small center.
It is hard to understand “why the ministry gave so much money to people with little overall experience of the prison sector," a statement from Antigone said.
The statement expressed hoped that the project would at least be "closely monitored."
For Pasquale, though, it has already done more than enough: He says it offered him a chance at "redemption."