“No more children in prison. Even a single child forced to live restricted is too much “. In front of Parliament, last February 17, the Minister of Justice Marta Cartabia reiterated what is the first objective of the government. But, as the 21 who still live behind bars show, achieving it is a much more difficult task.

In reality, of the twenty-one children, those who are currently in a real prison are 6 and they are all in the women’s section of Rebibbia, together with 4 mothers, two of whom have definitive sentences. In January there were none and at the end of February there was only one child: these numbers change every month and in any case we try to reduce the number of children in the prisons as much as possible. For all the others, on the other hand, their home is called the institute with attenuated custody for incarcerated mothers, Icam. Introduced with Law 62 of 2011, they are structures dedicated exclusively to women with children up to 6 years of age, an age that rises to 10 if the sentence is final. The law of 11 years ago also provided for protected family homes, without however indicating any burden for the state. The result is that there are only two family homes throughout Italy, Leda’s house in Rome and the Ciao association in Milan.

The way to change the situation, however, is open. A first step forward was with the go-ahead from the Chamber to a bill by the deputy of the Democratic Party Paolo Siani which identifies in protected family homes the only place where children of condemned mothers can live, providing for the obligation for the State to finance them, and introduces some changes to the criminal procedure code aimed at making detention in ICAMs possible only in the presence of “precautionary needs of exceptional importance”. Furthermore, with the 2020 budget law, the government has allocated 4.5 million for the three-year period 2021-2023 with the aim of strengthening the family homes. “With this financial availability – said the minister in the Childhood Commission – an additional possibility opens up: it is now up to the Regions and local authorities to take charge of concrete initiatives in the sector of reception of inmate-mothers”.

The next few months will tell if, finally, it will be possible to bring that number to zero. Meanwhile, the children continue to live in prisons and ICAMs. Of the latter there are five in Italy but one, in Cagliari, is empty. In Venice there is only one child, nine little ones live instead in the Icam di Lauro, in the province of Avellino: the oldest is nine years old, the youngest almost 2; three other children are in the ICAM in Turin, associated with the Le Vallette prison and two others in the one in Milan, which depends on the San Vittore prison but is external to the penitentiary structure. What is the fundamental difference with a prison, explains the director of the ICAM of Avellino Paolo Pastena. They are structures “conceived from the beginning with certain principles that respond to a fundamental need, that of not making the minor’s impact felt or in any case attenuating to the maximum degree with a penitentiary-type structure. The staff carries out service in plain clothes, there is extensive use of video surveillance, we try to keep the spaces as open as possible “.

Three years ago, in 2019, there were many more children in prison: 48, more than double those of today. And they had risen to 59 at the beginning of 2020. But then Covid came. And it is sad to see that the virus has succeeded where regulations and society have so far failed. But it is only the first paradox of this story in which reality is much more complex than it seems. Where the will has to deal with prejudices. There are the responsibilities of the surveillance magistrates, who have a wide discretion over the granting of alternative measures. There are the objective conditions of these mothers: the lack, for many, of a real home and family contexts of absolute poverty that would make the alternative of house arrest worse than prison. And there is a generalized refusal of society to ‘protect’ these women, and therefore to reintegrate them into an appropriate social and working context, once the prison path is over.

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