The hard prison regime in Italy questioned after the death of Bernardo Provenzano, Mafia boss of bosses

Emanuele Midolo
Sep 15, 2016 · 4 min read
Photo: Flickr

Bernardo Provenzano, 83, former Mafia boss of bosses, died in a high-security wing of the San Paolo hospital in Milan after a long illness. His death in custody sparked a heated debate in Italy.

A long time most wanted criminal in Italy, Provenzano, alias “The Tractor”, was arrested in 2006, after 43 years on the run. He was hiding in a villa near the village of Corleone, Sicily, his hometown and source of inspiration for “The Godfather”.

Since his arrest, Provenzano was held under Article 41-bis of the Prison Administration Act, also known as the “hard prison regime”. Under these special measures, inmates are isolated from the outside world to avoid any communication with their criminal associates.

In 2013, Provenzano was hospitalised with several chronic conditions requiring 24h care. Last March, the Italian Minister of Justice confirmed the 41-bis regime for the mobster. The choice has been criticised.

“He lacked mental capacity”, said Maria Brucale, Provenzano’s lawyer and member of the Prison Commission of the Penal Chamber of Rome.

“For the last three years he had been unable to speak. He had advanced Parkinson’s disease and cancer. He was fed and kept alive by a machine”, Brucale said.

Earlier this year, the chief physician at the San Paolo Hospital, Dr. Rodolfo Casati, declared the patient “not amenable to ordinary detention”.

“This measure has a strong logic: to forbid any criminal messages from the prison”, said Brucale. “It doesn’t make any sense to apply it to a person incapable to think nor speak. They did it anyway, because Provenzano is the symbol of the worst Mafia. The Italian State pursued a vendetta and ignored the law.”

Roberto Piscitello, head of the Directorate of Prisoners at the Ministry of Justice, refuses this idea.

“The 41-bis is not an arbitrary act”, said Piscitello. “It is a provision against which the prisoner can appeal. The tribunal of Rome, judging Provenzano’s case, ruled that he did not lacked mental capacity”, he said.

“The reason of the regime is simple: to stop criminals from committing crimes during their detention”, said Piscitello. “The size of the Mafia in Italy has no equal in Europe and the 41-bis is necessary. Nevertheless, the law grants absolute protection to these detainees.”

729 people throughout Italy are currently incarcerated under the regime. “41-bis inmates” are kept in isolation for 22 hours a day — except one hour in the open air and another one for limited contacts with three others selected prisoners.

They have a right to a one-hour-long family visit per month behind a glass partition or, alternatively, to a 10-minute phone-call. Communication with legal advisers is also restricted.

The judiciary justifies these limitations, saying they are necessary to fight organised crime, cutting off vital communications between the mafiosi.

Senator Luigi Manconi is the president of the Extraordinary Commission for Human Rights which reviewed the regime.

“The 41-bis is not a hard prison regime”, said Manconi. “It is a separated prison condition — and it is very effective. But in some cases its application determines a limitation of the rights of the detainee. And this is not justified by security reasons.”

In two cases, in 2001, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Italy for breaching article 8 of the Human Rights Convention, the right to private and family life, home and correspondence.

However, the Court recently ruled that the regime is compatible with the Human Rights Convention.

According to the Italian Observatory for the Deaths in Custody, suicide rates within the 41-bis are 3.5 times higher than the rest of the penal system.

In March 2015, Palmerino Gargiulo, a 53 year-old man serving a life sentence, hanged himself in his prison cell in Cuneo, Northern Italy.

A month later, Feliciano Mallardo died from cancer at the San Salvatore hospital of L’Aquila, Southern Italy. His family was not allowed to visit him.

A death similar to the one of Provenzano, which is raising concerns over the law, with many asking for it to be changed.

“We don’t ask for the Government to be soft with people with a terrible criminal background”, said Brucale. “We simply demand respect for the law. There are fundamental rights that belong to everyone — even in prison. This is what we’re trying to say to people who are happy for the death of a Mafia killer.”

The regime was introduced in the early 1990s, after the killings of the two most famous Italian anti-mafia judges.

On May 23rd 1992, Judge Giovanni Falcone, his wife and his bodyguards were killed in a bombing on the highway near Palermo. Less than two months later, on July 19th, Judge Paolo Borsellino died in a car bomb explosion with his 5 bodyguards.

The day after that massacre, the then Minister of Justice, Claudio Martelli, signed the application of the first “41-bis” for 37 mafiosi.

The Mafia’s “season of terror” ended in 1993, with the arrest of the first “capo dei capi” (“boss of bosses”), Salvatore ‘Totò’ Riina. After Riina’s capture, Provenzano took over the lead of Cosa Nostra.


E. Midolo

Emanuele Midolo

Written by

Former editor in chief @agoravoxitalia Investigative journalism trainee @CityUniLondon