Cruel and Usual Punishment

E.T.C. Dee and Stefano Portelli

According to the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the ‘Nelson Mandela Rules’, to keep a prisoner in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day for more than 15 days is a form of torture, acceptable ‘in no circumstances’. Yet it is normal procedure in Italy’s 41-bis regime, named after an amendment to the Prison Administration Act introduced as ‘emergency’ legislation in 1975 but modified several times since, including after the mafia killing of the Sicilian judge Giovanni Falcone and his five bodyguards near Palermo in 1992. Its purpose then was to prevent mafia bosses from communicating with their associates but, as often happens with repressive measures, it has been progressively extended to other prisoners.

People incarcerated according to 41-bis rules are placed in solitary confinement under constant surveillance and not permitted to visit the prison gym or library. They are only allowed one hour a month for visits, which are recorded and conducted through a glass partition. Access to rehabilitation programmes is restricted. In theory the regime is reviewed every four years, but many of the 750 prisoners currently in 41-bis are de facto buried alive. Relatives of a Red Brigade prisoner, Nadia Lioce, who has spent over twenty years in 41-bis, report that she is no longer able to hold a coherent conversation when they visit. Appeals against 41-bis as violating human rights have always been rejected by Italian courts.

The anarchist activist and writer Alfredo Cospito was arrested in 2012 for kneecapping the CEO of the Ansaldo nuclear power company. While serving a ten-year sentence for the attack, which he admitted, Cospito was convicted of involvement in the bombing of a Carabinieri training barracks in 2006, an action which he denies having committed and in which no one was hurt. On appeal by the prosecutor, the bombing was reclassified by the Supreme Court as an ‘attack on the security of the state’, a crime which originally carried the death penalty – Italy’s Penal Code was written under Mussolini and adapted rather than abandoned after 1945 – and now incurs a life sentence without parole.

Throughout his incarceration, Cospito has continued to write articles and edit books, and communicated publicly with the broader anarchist movement in Italy and abroad. The conviction for the 2006 attack draws extensively on his writings from prison; despite his insistence on anarchist individualism, the courts depict him as the leader of an organisation, masterminding crimes from inside prison like a mafia boss. He was placed under the 41-bis regime last April, and began a hunger strike on 20 October, demanding the end of 41-bis not only for himself but altogether (some prisoners have been in solitary confinement since the 1990s). He has lost more than 45 kg and is almost unable to walk. On 30 January he was transferred from the Bancali supermax prison in Sardinia to the Opera special prison near Milan, for constant medical attention. The Supreme Court has set a date for a hearing on 21 February, brought forward from 20 April after Cospito’s lawyers pointed out that by then he would almost certainly be dead.

There have been demonstrations in support of Cospito and against 41-bis across Italy. Anarchist activists have carried out symbolic attacks on Italian embassies in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland. The justice minister, Carlo Nordio, said he would refuse to engage with Cospito’s lawyers and denied their appeal. After the case was debated in parliament, Giorgia Meloni was asked about it at a press conference with Olaf Scholz in Berlin, and responded with a letter to Corriere della Sera. A petition against 41-bis and life imprisonment was launched in January by grassroots organisations in Naples. The signatories include Luigi Manconi, a former senator and junior justice minister, and Laura Longo, a former surveillance court judge.

The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture in 2020 called for the Italian government to ‘engage in a serious reflection’ on 41-bis. Amnesty International, whose offices were occupied by Cospito’s supporters last October, called for his human rights to be respected and described 41-bis as ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’. On 1 February it joined with the organisations A Buon Diritto and Antigone to reiterate its plea for the Italian state to remove Cospito from 41-bis.

All these criticisms are dismissed by the right-wing government, and most of the centre-left opposition, who claim that relaxing 41-bis would cede ground to the mafia. (Matteo Messina Denaro, a mafia boss who had been on the run since the 1990s, was discovered in Palermo and arrested on 16 January. His crimes include dissolving the 12-year-old son of a former accomplice in nitric acid. He was immediately condemned to 41-bis.)

In late January, a right-wing congressman illegally disclosed a classified video of Cospito speaking to mafiosi inmates (the only companions he is allowed to talk to) to suggest he had gone on hunger strike under pressure from the mafia. Cospito’s supporters, by contrast, argue that repressive tools designed to combat the mafia are increasingly deployed to punish political dissent. At the end of last year a group of housing activists in Milan were found guilty of criminal association, and police in Pavia asked that a young non-violent climate activist be placed under a special surveillance regime (though a court in Milan rejected the request).

If the Italian government does not make a move in the next few days, Alfredo Cospito will die. The public debate he has elicited with his hunger strike has opened a window of opportunity to rethink a prison system that inflicts pain and fosters despair, not only in Italy.


  • 16 February 2023 at 3:50am
    Myotonic Jerk says:
    The articles glib use of kneecapping as though it's a matter of fact part of the job of your friendly local anarchist activist and writer, leaves me very uncomfortable. Let him have better conditions in prison but remember he is a torturer and a brute.

  • 16 February 2023 at 2:41pm
    Nicholas Hampson says:
    While I don't want to make light of the kneecapping, I note that according to an article in The Guardian on 11th May 2012, Ansaldo's CEO was released from hospital the same day, and said, "Thank God I am OK". He might well have not been.