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Summer in prison. “We need to plan ahead so that this season does not become an endless crisis”

Prisoners are spending their days in the heat, without any activities and without the presence of volunteers. The general inspector of the chaplains is once again calling on the whole of society to turn its attention to their plight

(Foto: ANSA/SIR)

Another summer marked by scorching heat. Extreme temperatures are also being recorded this summer of 2023. In some places, the weather, the heat and the loneliness are hard to bear. This is especially true in prisons. Father Raffaele Grimaldi, general inspector of chaplains in Italian prisons, comments on the situation in this interview with SIR.

Father Raffaele, what is the situation in the prisons this summer?

Unfortunately, summer is a critical period for our prison institutes. This is because there hasn’t been proper planning to prepare for this season, which is particularly critical for the prison population. Many activities are temporarily suspended because of staff shortages or because staff go on holiday. Simultaneously, volunteers and others who dedicate their time to the prison throughout the year are often not involved. There are no classes, the school is closed.

After a year full of activities, the inmates have nothing to do: being in this state 24 hours a day is detrimental, it causes distress.

During the summer, the inmates need extra attention. In addition to the suffering caused by being separated from their families, they suffer from the feelings of abandonment and extreme loneliness that are typical of the summer season.

Extreme heat doesn’t help…

Admittedly, high temperatures make life in prison worse, especially this summer’s sweltering heat. In addition, many of our institutions are new concrete buildings, which makes the heat even more unbearable. On many occasions the chaplains have urged the prison management to buy fans or install fridges with ice and water dispensers in the corridors. These are practical solutions to help inmates cope with the summer heat. It’s hard enough for us who are outside. We can only imagine how hard it must be for them who are inside.

The same problems occur every summer, why is nothing done?

Summer should not be an emergency period. It should be part of the annual planning for the entire detention centre. In June, July and August we see an exodus of workers from our facilities. There is no advance planning, as I said, and emergencies prevail.

What is needed is long-term planning, addressing the critical aspects of the summer season

with the aim of organising voluntary activities, involving volunteer groups to liven up mornings and evenings and help inmates get through this period as peacefully as possible.

During this time, do inmates usually receive visits from family members?

Usually, it is the inmates themselves who discourage relatives from visiting them in prison because it is too hot, but they stay in touch by telephone and video calls.

In some prisons, however, contact with relatives is decreasing. A lack of staff means that this vital service for inmates is not being provided.

Unfortunately, the suicide rate in prisons remains high, although not as high as last year…

Compared to a year ago, when there was a sharp increase in suicides among inmates, the situation seems to have improved slightly. However, it should be noted that many inmates took their own lives in the first seven months of this year.

I hope that since the tragic experience of 2022, we have learned to be more attentive and responsible towards the most vulnerable members of society, especially inmates with psychological and psychiatric disorders, lonely people, immigrants, the homeless, the poorest, all those who have no contact with the outside world, with their families, and who often live in despair inside the prison.

The chaplains are always there…

Of course, the spiritual comfort offered by the chaplains continues. In the meantime, a total of 8,000 Bibles donated by the Italian Bishops’ Conference have been distributed to 100 prisons in Italy, the first having been delivered personally by the Archbishop of Cagliari, Monsignor Giuseppe Baturi, Secretary General of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, to the Paliano prison, near the city of Frosinone, last March.

The project is a sign of encouragement for prison workers and a step along the Church’s journey of caring for those deprived of their personal freedom. It will be carried out at the local level with prayer and awareness-raising initiatives.

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Society as a whole must turn its attention to the prison community.

Rehabilitation takes place in prison for those who have committed a crime. Many prisoners can succeed with the help and acceptance of the outside world, but if offenders are further marginalised when they are released from prison, the risk of reoffending increases if they are not helped and accepted. This problem has a particularly negative impact on those prisoners without a family or a support network.

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