By Barry Moody
ROME (Reuters) - Gazing at the glories of Rome from its best viewpoint on the Janiculum Hill, the cluster of old buildings immediately below and to the left look like yet another of the Holy City's hundreds of churches.
The reality is less romantic.
The buildings are the historic Regina Coeli or Queen of Heaven jail - a long, long way from paradise for prisoners crammed inside in conditions which even senior Italian officials say have made Italy's prisons a national disgrace.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled in January that overcrowding in Italy's prisons violated basic rights, ordering the government to pay 100,000 euros ($132,000) to seven inmates who brought a test case and to fix the problem within a year.
President Giorgio Napolitano said the ruling was "a mortifying confirmation of the persistent failure of our state to guarantee the basic rights of detainees awaiting judgment and serving sentences".
Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri said last month Italy's prisons were unworthy of a civilized country.
Prison rights group Antigone says they are the most crowded in the European Union with occupancy at more than 142 percent of capacity. There are close to 67,000 prisoners in jails built for 45,000.
"Decisions can no longer be postponed to overcome a degrading reality for the inmates and for the prison guards," Napolitano said last week.
The overcrowding is the result of a byzantine and chronically slow-moving justice system - the root cause of many national problems - and of years of failure to build new detention centers by a state facing a squeeze on its finances.
The government declared a state of emergency because of prison overcrowding more than three years ago and drew up a plan to spend 675 million euros to create 9,000 new places in 11 new prisons and extensions to existing buildings.
The plan has shrunk significantly since then due to Italy's deep recession. In the words of Antigone, "Up to now not one brick has been laid."
BLOCKED BY POLITICS
Napolitano urged swift passage of a new law to reform the penal system so that fewer people are jailed for minor offences - as proposed by Antigone and other reformers.
The law was stalled by the early dissolution of parliament for elections that took place in February, prompting a political deadlock that has only recently been overcome.
Around 60 percent of convicted prisoners are serving sentences of less than three years. Alternative sanctions such as fines, social work and home detention are all less common than elsewhere in Europe.
"The heart of the prison problem is the penal code," Antigone said in its 2012 annual report.
The Queen of Heaven's resemblance to a church is no accident. It was built as a monastery alongside the Tiber River in the 17th century and converted into a prison in 1881 after the unification of Italy.
Two lofty ancient cupolas at least reduce the heat inside the jail but the overcrowding is obvious.
Cells built for one prisoner house three. Those designed for four are occupied by six, with an extra level of bunks. Former public areas such as classrooms have been converted into makeshift cells for 10 inmates sharing one toilet.
Overcrowding "is a big problem, it is dramatic. The staff are really stressed," deputy governor Anna Angeletti told Reuters.
"Something must be done because the prisons are close to collapse," said another senior jail official, Margherita Marras.
At Regina Coeli, primarily a remand centre to detain people immediately after their arrest, staff try to reduce tension by opening the cells for half of each day to let all but the most violent or vulnerable prisoners walk around and socialize.
Angeletti says the jail, with more than 1,000 prisoners compared to a capacity of 700, is like a hospital casualty ward obliged to admit all new arrestees from the Lazio region around Rome, even if it is full.
New arrivals have to remain longer in less comfortable holding cells and often sleep on mattresses on the floor because of the overcrowding, officials say.
"MINI UNITED NATIONS"
Authorities allowed Reuters to interview only convicted prisoners who gave their agreement in writing, and on condition that the inmates' offences not be disclosed.
"Everybody knows there is a problem of overcrowding but nobody addresses it. In a cell with six people there should be two to four ... Tensions are born in the cell," said Luigi Murra, 50, who has been in the jail for 15 months.
Like other prisoners, Murra said Italy's economic crisis had increased crime but he added: "The justice system is another problem. It is very slow. There are an enormous number of trials."
Prison reform group Antigone says a leading cause of overcrowding is the large number of people remanded in custody after being charged instead of being released on bail. They make up 40 percent of the prison population compared to 23 percent in France and 15 percent in Germany and Britain.
Magistrates are supposed to detain only those who represent a risk of flight, repeat offending or tampering with evidence. But lawyers at Antigone say the system is abused, partly because public opinion demands the pre-trial detention of suspects.
Italy's supreme court has criticized the overuse of protective custody, a key strain on the prison system.
"There are so many people awaiting trial for six, seven, eight months," said Cesare Cececotto, 58, who has been in Regina Coeli for two years.
There is also a big proportion of foreigners - 35 percent of the total, partly due to the high rate of drug arrests in a country which is a corridor for the narcotics trade. Nearly 40 percent of convicts in Italy are serving time for drugs offences, compared to around 14 percent in France and Germany.
The number of foreign detainees is a major grievance among Italian prisoners.
"We are talking about a prison where you can be in a cell with people with six different languages, six different habits, where there is one who prays as an observant Muslim five times a day and another who swears five times a minute," said Giuseppe Rampello, 63, who has been in jail for four years.
"There is one who eats pork and one who cannot bear to look at it. There is one who never washes and one who washes all the time. This is the problem," he added.
"Even if you locked up people for 10 days with their husband or wife, I think half of them would run away. If instead you take a bunch of people like a mini United Nations, it is a disaster when there is only one toilet, when everybody brings their own culture to the bathroom," Rampello said.
Cececotto said he was the only Italian in his cell. "Thank God, I speak a bit of English and a bit of Spanish," he said. ($1 = 0.7579 euros)
(Reporting by Barry Moody; Editing by Paul Taylor)