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Mr Scandurra, you have just joined the Forum with the “Antigone” Association, which was established at the end of the 1980s. In my opinion, you have a quite successful story behind you. What are the main topics you have been working at right now? And what have been achievements of these years for you?
“Antigone” was established, after some articles had been introduced to the Criminal Code to fight political terrorism. The things were getting harsher and harsher, and we had a feeling that that process should be monitored by the civil society. Afterwards, we focused more and more on the work in prisons, prisoners’ rights, and prison reforms. In the 1990s, the situation in Italian prisons was deteriorating significantly – and we worked much on these topics. Now we are in a situation of political reforms and can observe certain improvements. Due to the overcrowding of prisons, there was the declaration of the state of emergency by the Italian government in 2010. But after a decision against Italy by the European Court of Human Rights because of the overcrowding of prisons, a lot of reforms were introduced, so now the situation is improving. Even more: For the first time since I started working on prison issues, I can see the situation getting better. It is a very exciting moment for us in Italy.
There are still some issues on the agenda you are dealing with right now, for instance, the abolition of the life sentence. What are the most urgent issues you are working at right now, while the situation improved?
The situation improved mostly in numbers: There are less prisoners, so the situation is less harsh not only for detainees but also for the organisations working at prisoners’ rights. Now there is an opportunity to rethink many aspects of the prison system in Italy. At the moment, we have been working at some areas in particular. One is the introduction of the crime of torture, which has been not in the Italy’s Criminal Code so far. Hence, we face huge problems to address cases of beatings of prisoners or violence against them. We have been involved in many trials but a session usually ends up with the limitation of the length of the trial for technical reasons. So, we would really need the introduction of torturing to the Criminal Code and we have been campaigning for this for many years. Italy has had international obligations since the 1980s to reduce the number of such crimes, but in fact we have received an opportunity to get this done only recently. Now there is a bill pending in the Parliament, and we hope that Italy will have let torture into the Criminal Code by the end of 2016. There are many problematic aspects in prisons in Italy, for example, healthcare. The healthcare system is very poor at the moment. In 2008, there has been a shift in the responsibility of healthcare for prisoners from the Ministry of Justice to the national healthcare system, but this transfer of duties did not work out well. As a result, the situation is very hard at the moment, especially in some regions and parts of the country. Other issues are not considered at all by the penitentiary system, for instance, gay rights. The law is applied in the sense as if there were no gay people. There is a huge problem in the management of the sentences of gay people. Likewise, there are no facilities or legal grounds for disabled people. We see many problems but that is perhaps the right moment to address those.
And what would you say about life sentences? How is the work progressing here?
We experience life sentences in Italy, but after a certain number of years most of the prisoners have an opportunity to leave the prison and serve the sentence outside or even to be released. Yet, there are few prisoners, who have actually life sentences and are not allowed to serve those outside prisions. Thanks to international projects, we get opportunities to take a look at other systems working on that. Nowadays we are doing our best to present those cases to the Italian public opinion to persuade the people that the system may be easily in operation without life sentence. And it is still not the end of fight, though these norms do not affect crime rates or public security and are just a matter of culture, which may be easily changed.
Another question is about your campaign against xenophobia. I suppose, this is also an acute issue in prisons like it is in daily life, when migrants and refugees arrive to the Island of Lampedusa or Italy in general. What is the attitude and situation with xenophobia in prisons?
I would say the situation in prisons is quite different from that in the rest of society. It is the society, which does not consider foreigners as a legitimate part of the community. In prisons, they enjoy being legitimate members of the community. I don’t observe xenophobia in prisons, as long as foreigners have been a big minority among detainees over the last years, so a pattern of living together with other nationalities is there. Instead, a big issue in prison is the fact that the penitentiary law and practices are obsolete. They were elaborated, when there were no foreign inmates. Even though there is no xenophobic attitude in detention places, a sentence for a foreigner might be tougher than that for an Italian citizen.
This means that the problem is in the authorities not other inmates?
It is in the legislation. Even alternatives to detention are more difficult to be achieved for foreign inmates, as long as a prerequisite for that is a kind of social links – a family or a job, ie things that are more difficult to be provided in cases of foreigners. Besides, conditions in prisons are quite poor, and this is very important to have relatives in the country. If it is not the case, the sentence might appear tougher. Another big issue is healthcare for prisoners: It is not only a physical or biological thing, it is also a cultural thing, so the way you communicate your issues, your problems, your difficulties. I have a feeling that foreigners suffer the most also in this regard, especially if they do not speak the language or are not familiar with the local culture. There is a bunch of practical and legal problems, which should be addressed more seriously. The number of foreign inmates counts at more than 30 % of prisoners, ie they form a huge part of the system.
We are talking in Berlin, where you came for the workshop on management of projects supported within the Open Call Mechanism of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Can you please elaborate more on the project you are going to implement with your colleagues from Russia?
The first goal of the project was simply to try to learn as much as possible from our colleagues from Russia. In the Forum, there are so many different experiences and ways of solving the problems, which are in some cases quite similar to each other. So, the Forum provides a great opportunity to get to know the way, how other NGOs work abroad on such issues. What we would also like to achieve with the project is to make European NGOs aware of the fact that the European Charter of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights can be powerful tools to improve prison conditions. This is the case in Italy and other European countries. Nevertheless, we in Italy start being aware of the tensions of this mechanism, and we are sure that we can use it more to improve prison conditions also in other countries. So one of the goals of the project is to make the organisations aware that this is possible and that this has been an issue for many countries already.
In comparison to your Association, the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum is quite a young network turning five these days. “Antigone” is one of the newest Forum members. What was the reason for you to join the Forum? Where do you see benefits for your prominent organisation to be a part of this Forum?
As I said, one thing we are very much interested in is to know what other organisations do in the field. The topic of imprisonment is probably different from other ones, as long as prison facilities and institutions tend to be quite similar to each other, even in many different countries or cultures. This means that we have similar problems, which have been addressed in different ways in Europe, and we are very keen to learn about that and use it as a tool for advocacy. One thing is to say that I would like to see this reform implemented and another thing is to say that this is the way that an entire country is dealing with the issue and we probably should follow. Besides, I find it very useful to meet colleagues at the organisational level, as long as each of us has a different story. Our organisation, the way we operate depends very much on our own history, experiences, and changes. Changes are always a hard challenge but looking at experiences of other organisations helps to understand, how differently they deal with such issues as fundraising, communication, management system and so on. One can get very simple and clever ideas from such interactions, and we want to learn from each other.
What would you like to wish to the Forum and its members for the future, let’s say, for the next five years?
I think this is a powerful, precious opportunity for exchange. And I hope that the Forum will be extending its activities and making communication between the organisations easier by generating more opportunities for partnerships and networking. This is the way, we as an organisation are trying to plan our work for the next years. And I think it is a great opportunity for each of us to contribute to this process.
Thank you very much for this interview.
The interview was conducted by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum on 16 March 2016 in Berlin, Germany.