August 11, 2006

Jailbirds on the loose? Mass pardon rattles Italy

By Silvia Aloisi

ROME - Amanda Ait-Jilal, a 27-year-old transsexual convicted for drug dealing, was in her cell wondering how she'd get through another year in jail when the prison guard came round.

"Pack your stuff. You are out of here," the French immigrant recalls the guard telling her. "Take my advice. Be good."

It was 10 o'clock at night.

Three hours later, she was wandering the streets of Naples, savoring her new-found freedom after nearly three years in one of Italy's most infamous prisons, Poggio Reale.

Ait-Jilal is one of more than 12,000 detainees in Italy who have just been released or are about to walk free thanks to a mass pardon pushed through by Romano Prodi's center-left government to reduce prison overcrowding.

Justice Minister Clemente Mastella says the July 29 pardon, which cuts three years off sentences including for convicted murderers and thieves, was an overdue act of clemency in a jail system cramming 62,000 inmates into prisons meant for 42,000.

But critics say it is a shortcut that does not address the root problem -- a notoriously cumbersome court system -- and warn it will endanger the public.

In the first few days after the amnesty came into effect, at least 18 pardoned detainees were re-arrested within hours of their release because they were found committing new crimes.

In the northern city of Udine, a man convicted for abusing his family went straight home and tried to strangle his wife.

A 32-year-old drug addict was found dead shortly after being freed in Milan, killed by an overdose.


The far-right Northern League has distributed leaflets with advice on how to apply for a gun license.

"We are not encouraging people to take the law into their own hands. But if honest citizens feel in danger, they have a right to know how to lawfully get a gun," said Senator Massimo Polledri.

A police trade union, which complains of understaffing, advised Romans to cancel their holidays and guard their homes.

"In Rome alone, 2,000 detainees are being set free. Many have no place to go to, they are bound to commit a new offense soon," Palmerino Paniccia of the Consap union told Reuters.

Local authorities play down the risks and say that Mafiosi, terrorists, rapists, pedophiles, armed gangsters and those who prostitute minors are excluded from the pardon, which will be revoked for those committing any new offense within five years.

The pardon, which needed a two-thirds majority in parliament, was extended to those guilty of corruption and embezzlement to win support from former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's opposition.

The extension irked some Prodi allies because Berlusconi's rule was tainted by bribery scandals. Italian newspapers say the pardon could help those still standing trial for the collapse of dairy group Parmalat, one of Europe's biggest corporate frauds.


In Rome, Laura Braghetti runs a small voluntary office helping prisoners cope with the first few days after their release. The office is usually open two days a week, but since the pardon, it has been open six days a week.

The office hands out a 48-hour "survival kit" with meal vouchers, prepaid phone cards, public transport tickets, a T-shirt, toothbrush and toothpaste and a map of Rome with the addresses of public dormitories and job centers.

Ait-Jilal, the prisoner freed in Naples, was one of those who went to seek help at Braghetti's office.

"I have no money and no place to go to. I could choose the easy way out -- go back into drug dealing or prostitution. But this time I want to be clean," she said.

"All my friends are hookers or drug traffickers. Say I go to stay with them and someone starts snorting coke. Even if I do nothing wrong, what will I tell the police if they find us?"

Braghetti said one of the biggest headaches was trying to help illegal immigrants -- who make up half of the prison population in many Italian jails. Those freed under the pardon now risk being expelled from the country within days.

"Many would rather be in prison here than go back to their country," she said.

Drug addicts who will now be free to leave rehabilitation centers are also a problem.

The mother of a 47-year-old who has spent the last 30 years in and out of jail for drug-related crimes has written to Mastella begging him not to free her son.

"Any jail, even the worst one, will be safer than my own house if he comes back. Who will defend me from him?" she said.