Italy’s Prison Population Offers Insight Into Migrant Trends

Italy’s Prison Population Offers Insight Into Migrant Trends

ROME — If past patterns follow, with the surge of migrants to Italy this year will also come a perhaps inevitable byproduct: An expected increase of inmates in the country’s already overcrowded prisons. That’s pushing Rome to eye more alternatives to incarceration — especially if it will also allay risks of radicalization among new prisoners.

Tied to the Vatican’s Jubilee Year of Mercy, which begins Dec. 8, Rome is considering allowing more cases of probation and rehabilitation, Justice Minister Andrea Orlando said in an interview with Foreign Policy. The Justice Ministry is also looking at new incentives for behaving well behind bars — such as opening study or work programs for inmates who currently don’t qualify, based on their crimes.

It’s a “delicate” balance, Orlando said — particularly as no government wants to appear soft on crime or to any way slight victims. But Italy may have little choice if it wants to keep prisoners from Muslim-dominated countries from falling prey to extremist proselytizing.

“Putting a lot of people in the prisons risks creating the broth, the culture, where you can realize recruiting for these terrorist organizations,” Orlando said in a wide-ranging interview last week. “We have to reflect on how we prevent this from happening.”

Italy runs the most overcrowded prison system in Europe, according to a 2013 study by the Rome-based European Prison Observatory, which is funded in part by the European Union. As recently as a few years ago, the study found, foreigners made up 36 percent of the Italian prison population; Orlando said it has since dropped to about 25 percent. Overall, he said, there are about 53,000 convicts currently incarcerated in Italian prisons, down from the study’s estimate of 65,700.

Meanwhile, an estimated 130,000 migrants have surged into Italy so far this year, according to the United Nations. The vast majority — 66 percent — claimed to be from Africa, according to Italian Foreign Ministry data given to FP for the first six months of 2015, the latest numbers immediately available. Eritreans accounted for 26 percent of the Africans, followed by Nigeria (11 percent) and Somalia (9 percent) — both countries that have been besieged by Muslim insurgencies.

Syrians made up only 6 percent of those who fled to Italy this year, according to the data. But the plight of the Mideast nation has helped soften sympathies among Italians for all migrants, Orlando said.

“This narrative is picking up,” he said. “We’re not just talking about people who are looking for work. We are talking about people escaping a war.”

So far, Italy’s prison population hasn’t begun to reflect the migrant crisis.

The largest group of foreign migrants behind bars are from Morocco, reflecting a diaspora to Italy that more than doubled between 1998 and 2012 to nearly a half-million people, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Romanians make up the second-largest pool of foreign convicts; an estimated 1 million Romanians immigrated to Italy in search of jobs over the last decade. Inmates from Tunisia and Albania are also numerous in Italian prisons, Orlando said.

But the number of Albanian prisoners have slowly dwindled in recent years — reflecting the return home for tens of thousands of Albanians who fled to Italy in the 1990s to escape government and economic instability. As Albania’s economy improved over the last 20 years, it lured back its far-flung citizens.

Orlando predicted this also will happen with many — if not all — of the current crop of migrants, particularly those from more stable, if poor, areas in Africa. If so, he said, that should be reflected in Italy’s prisons. “That’s a mirror that’s very important,” he said.

Credit: Valery Hache / AFP