The reality of children living in prison is “an always unacceptable idea”, according to the Pope John XXIII Community in Italy, which has called on the competent authorities to release these minors, especially in the context of the public health emergency of the coronavirus pandemic, which has also reached jails in the country.

Among other grim details of life behind bars during the COVID-19 outbreak, last week the city of Bologna registered the first death of an inmate from the new virus.

“These children, who have not committed any crime, are exposed to an enormous risk in overcrowded prisons”, denounced Giovanni Paolo Ramonda, President of the Community, following news of the spread of the virus in Italian prisons, beginning with that of Rebibbia.

According to data provided by the Ministry of Justice at the end of 2019, 48 children live in Italian prisons with mothers who are serving jail time.

Ramonda called for these mothers and their children to be released into halfway houses, or, when that’s not possible for mothers, for the children of inmates to be be freed into the homes of relatives or foster homes.

Prison overcrowding

The current pandemic, according to the John XXIII Community, reopens one of the deep wounds of Italian criminal law.

Law 62/2011, on the subject of female inmates with children, has limits that must be overcome, said the group, founded by Servant of God Don Oreste Benzi in 1968.

Regarding that controversial law, the 2011 Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law (YIHL) denounced that “the presence of children in prisons is plainly incompatible with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and with Article 31 of the Italian Constitution”.

But although Italian lawmakers have introduced measures apart from detention for female felons with children – notably, a ‘special home detention’ regime – the YIHL said that owing to their high threshold of application, laws permitting alternatives to prison sentences are infrequently applied.

Moreover, legislation providing for home detention for mothers are limited to convicted criminals, a situation that therefore excludes cases of detention before trial or sentencing.

The John XXIII Community – dedicated to the fight against marginalisation and poverty – warned that if the need for reform of the prison system was already urgent before the COVID-19 outbreak, it is even more critical now due to the overcrowding in Italian prisons.

According to the latest data, Italian jails are now at an average of 120% overcapacity. Some 42 correctional facilities are registering congestion peaks of up to 150%, making the Italian prison system the most overburdened in Europe.

“It is essential to adopt exceptional and unavoidable measures” in the time of the coronavirus, “including not allowing any child to continue serving a prison sentence with their mothers”, urged Ramonda.

“The country must be concerned about the fate of these children who live in prison through no fault of their own. The nation must not turn its back on them but must protect these its own children”, the John XXIII Community president insisted.

(With reporting by Vatican News)

More on Novena on the Church’s concern for prisoners:

“No sin will ever have the last word”: Pope’s Good Friday meditations to speak of hope beyond crime

Vatican official urges world not to forget prisoners amid coronavirus

Pope warns overcrowded prisons “could become a tragedy”

19/3: Santa Marta Mass: Pope prays for prisoners “suffering” coronavirus “uncertainty”, warns Church against “rules and regulations”

11/3: Francis offers Santa Marta Mass for “consolation” of prisoners, counsels “discernment” to conquer “vanity, worldliness, careerism”

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.