This Europe: Mafiosi spread news of jail protest over law that stops them talking

In jails across Italy, more than 300 Mafia bosses are rattling their cell bars and refusing to eat in a protest against conditions.

The hunger strike and rattling cacophony follows a letter in which mafiosi objected to parliament's Anti-Mafia Commission, which wants to extend a law that clamps down on communication between jailed mobsters and their organisations.

Under a law known as "41 bis", inmates in high-security jails are allowed one family visit a month, one phone call of up to 10 minutes a month, and are forbidden contact with fellow convicts from their organisation. They can have up to two hours outdoor exercise a day.

Introduced a decade ago as a temporary measure after two magistrates were murdered, the law is intended to stop mobsters or terrorists controlling or influencing their groups from behind bars. The law is renewed annually but the government proposes extending it to the end of its term in 2006. Many are pushing for it to be made a permanent law.

The Justice Minister, Roberto Castelli, is being firm. "The government is going ahead ... We maintain that 41 bis is a very effective measure against organised crime, and also against terrorism," he said.

But the protest itself seems to prove the law's ineffectiveness. After it began in Marina Picena in central Italy – whose inmates include Salvatore "Toto" Riina, the reputed "boss of bosses" – it spread rapidly across the country, in spite of inmates supposedly having no way to contact one another. Mobsters of different ranks in eight jails have now joined in.

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