“No more children in prison. Even a single child forced to live a restricted life is too much”. In front of Parliament, on February 17 last year, Minister of Justice Marta Cartabia reiterated what is the government’s first goal. But as the 21 who are still living behind bars, shows, it is a much more difficult task to achieve it.
In reality, they are 6 of the 21 children currently in a real prison, and they are all in the women’s section of Rebibbia, along with 4 mothers, two of whom have final sentences. In January there were none, and at the end of February there was only one child: these are figures that change every month, and in any case we try to reduce the number of children in prisons as much as possible. For all the others, however, their home is called the institute with impaired parental authority for imprisoned mothers, Icam. Introduced by Law 62 of 2011, the structures are dedicated exclusively to women with children up to 6 years old, an age that increases to 10 if the judgment is final. The law 11 years ago also provided for sheltered family homes, without, however, specifying any burden on the state. The result is that there are only two family homes in the whole of Italy, Leda’s house in Rome and the association Ciao in Milan.
However, the way to change the situation is open. A first step forward came with the green light from the floor of a bill by the representative of the Democratic Party, Paolo Siani, which identifies in protected family homes the only place where children of convicted mothers can live, obliges the state to finance them and introduces some changes to the Criminal Procedure Code aimed at enabling detention in ICAMs only if there is “precautionary need of unusual importance”. With the Budget Act 2020, the government has also set aside 4.5 million for the three-year period 2021-2023 with the aim of strengthening family housing. “With this financial availability – said the minister in the Children’s Commission – a further opportunity opens up: It is now up to the regions and local authorities to take concrete initiatives within the sector for receiving inmate-mothers”.
The next few months will show whether it will finally be possible to bring that number to zero. Meanwhile, the children continue to live in prisons and ICAMs. Of the latter, there are five in Italy, but one, in Cagliari, is empty. In Venice there is only one child, nine children live instead in Icam di Lauro, in the province of Avellino: the oldest is nine years old, the youngest almost 2; three other children are in the ICAM in Turin, attached to the Le Vallette prison and two others in the one in Milan, which depends on the San Vittore prison but is outside the prison structure. What is the fundamental difference with a prison, explains the director of ICAM in Avellino Paolo Pastena. They are structures “conceived from the beginning with certain principles that correspond to a basic need, namely not to make the impact of the minor noticeable or in any case to suppress as much as possible with a prison structure. The staff performs service in plain clothes, there is a great use of video surveillance, we try to keep the spaces as open as possible”.
Three years ago, in 2019, there were many more children in prison: 48, more than double today. And they had risen to 59 by early 2020. But then came Covid. And it is sad to see that the virus has succeeded where rules and society have so far failed. But this is only the first paradox in this story, where reality is much more complex than it seems. Where the will has to deal with prejudice. There is the responsibility of the supervising judges, who have a wide discretion in the awarding of alternative measures. There are the objective conditions for these mothers: the lack, for many, of a real home and family contexts of absolute poverty, which would make the alternative of home care worse than prison. And there is a general refusal by society to ‘protect’ these women and therefore reinstate them in an appropriate social and working context when the prison road is over.