Milan Stories: What to do with an ugly, useless old prison? Save it for the nation

A debate is raging in Italy over what to do with the San Vittore jail in the historical centre of Milan.

It's a jail, so it was not designed to look pretty. Tight-packed, barrack-like, 19th-century blocks rise behind high concrete walls, fanning out from a central watchtower.

The side issue is that San Vittore is kept in laughably bad condition. It has no working alarms, for example, few surveillance cameras, and in August, when every honest Italian likes to go on holiday, too few guards to keep a proper eye on their charges. That's why an Albanian gangster called Rapi Miki, serving eight years for drug trafficking, sexual assault and other offences, managed to knock a hole in the wall of his cell, climb through it and escape over the perimeter wall last Sunday. Just like in the old films.

The more important issue for Italy is what to do with the buildings. All agree that it's time to relocate Milan's prisoners to a modern jail outside the city centre. But then what? Tear the place down, says the Mayor of Milan, Gabriele Albertini: replace it with a nice park, ringed by new buildings. But this week the regional superintendent for cultural assets, Carla Di Francesco, said absolutely not.

She made two points. "To demolish San Vittore," she said, "it will be necessary to eliminate the obstacle of its protected status." That is a decision the Soprintendenza - the official monuments service - would have to take. And according to Di Francesco, "that is something the Soprintendenza will not do." The bureaucracy, in other words, is in the way, and the bureaucracy shall not be moved.

Point two, again in the words of Di Francesco: "There can be no doubt that San Vittore is a cultural asset because it was the first modern jail of united Italy." It doesn't matter, in other words, that San Vittore is not merely ugly but a complex of stark horror; nor that it is unloved, nor that it occupies precious acres close to the centre of Italy's biggest city. A redundant power station became London's new Tate, but it beggars the imagination what clever new use this concentration of human hamster cages could be put to. But that doesn't matter either. The boxes on the "cultural asset" questionnaire have been ticked, so stay it must.

This is "heritage" gone mad: it's particularly unfortunate because generally Italy offers a shining example of the right way to go about conservation. Where historic towns, villages and cities still have vitality, their antique beauty is lovingly preserved. Travelling through the rapidly changing countryside of northern Italy, on the other hand, one sees dozens of old farmhouses crumbling away, for the simple reason that their owners have died or moved to the cities. The life has departed from them; they no longer have a function, so they rot away. That's natural.

Has anyone died from this week's suffocating heat or not? All week the Italian newspapers have been full of tragic tales of the abandonment and subsequent death from heat of the anziani, the "ancients", left alone in the furnace of the cities while their wretched offspring frolic at the beach. "Twenty-three died in Turin, 20 in Milan, two in Florence and one in Varese," said La Repubblica; "53 ancients wiped out in their homes," yelled Il Giornale; "50 victims in a single day in Milan and Turin," declared Corriere della Sera. Nothing to compare with the amazing figure of 3,000 deaths published by the French government, but alarming to say the least.

Then along comes a little upstart Milanese newspaper called Libero to spoil the fun, quoting - and reproducing on its front page - a press release from Milan's public health authority, stating that mortality in Milan for the first 10 days of August was the same as for the past two years. Perhaps the headlines should have said that old people sometimes die; and if you think it's hot at the beach, it's a lot worse back home. But that's not quite such a good story.