VIP prisoners draw attention to Italy's grim jails: Immediate reforms will extend prisons and increase staff numbers

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The Independent Online
THE ARRIVAL in jail of a sizeable selection from the Italian Who's Who among the mafiosi, drug-addicts, prostitutes and thieves has worked wonders. The government yesterday decided to do something about the appalling conditions there.

Tangentopoli - Bribesville - as the corruption scandals are called, has succeeded where the prison authorities have failed for years and drawn the country's attention to what its jails are like inside - in particular San Vittore, the Milanese jail where most suspects have ended up.

San Vittore in fact seems positively civilised compared with some of the mouldering old jails, often former fortresses, in southern Italy, or the grim island prisons of Asinara and Pianosa, Italy's equivalents of Alcatraz, where Mafia bosses and dangerous criminals are kept in conditions that have brought protests from Amnesty International.

Yet even in San Vittore more than 2,000 prisoners, including hundreds of drug addicts and HIV-positive inmates, are crammed into six wings built 120 years ago to hold 800. Cells intended for one prisoner now hold up to six, shut up together almost all the time, hardly able to move about and with only an hour's exercise a day outside.

The toilets in the cells stink, showers are allowed only twice a week and sheets are changed once a fortnight. Rats and mice abound. In summer, the temperature often soars to around 40C - and this is often when prison revolts explode.

About 180 politicians and businessmen have been sent to San Vittore, sped in police cars past the now permanent battery of press and television cameramen stationed outside the main gate. Present inmates include Gabriele Cagliari, president of the state-owned energy giant ENI, and Francesco Paolo Mattioli, finance chief and number three in Fiat.

The VIPs are housed, as long as there is room, in wing 6, side B, but they are treated the same as the rest. They are allowed to wear their own clothes and some stick to shirts and jackets but many, it is said, prefer more comfortable track suits. They are allowed to spend up to pounds 200 a month on food and other comforts at the prison store.

They can also have food sent in by their families - but roast chicken and veal are banned because they could conceal knives or files. So are champagne and lobsters - 'lobster claws are dangerous', says the prison's young and active governor, Luigi Pagano.

Few care to talk publicly afterwards about their experiences, which were doubtless deeply shocking for people who enjoyed power, social status, a luxurious lifestyle and often a sense of immunity to the laws that govern ordinary mortals.

'Once inside they realise they have lost everything and will probably never regain the position in society they once held, regardless of what happens,' says Mr Pagano. One Christian Democrat politician admitted, however, that it had been an important experience for him to be dragged back into the real world. 'It's a kennels certainly,' Mr Pagano says. 'But where were you politicians and you journalists when we were denouncing the situation for years?'

Now the government is planning to increase the staff and create new prisons or reopen old ones to tackle overcrowding. It also plans longer-term reforms.

A nasty experience for Enzo Carra, who was once Italy's counterpart to Bernard Ingham, is also changing things for less well-known prisoners. He was recently brought into court having had to run the gauntlet of television cameras and photographers with his hands in irons. As a result of the ensuing outcry the government is planning to replace irons with less visible, lightweight handcuffs.