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Religion and Society

Prisons in the Era of Religious Pluralism

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In Italian prisons, more than one out of three foreign inmates is a Muslim. The need for proper formation of chaplain-imams has become urgent

The demographic transformations that for several years now have characterize the Italian social fabric inevitably have an influence also on the composition of prisons’ population: it has gone, in fact, from a percentage of foreigners of just above 15 percent in the early 90s to the current 30 percent circa. Based on the data of November 30, 2016 provided by the Department of correctional facilities administration (Office for the development and management of automated information system – statistical section) of a national total of 55,251 (of which 2,335 women), foreigners appear to be 18,714 (of which 878 women). Of a total of 142 nationalities, the most represented are: Morocco (3,252), Romania (2763), Albania (2474), Tunisia (2012), Nigeria (870), Egypt (692), Senegal (466) and Algeria ( 408). Finally, the regions with the highest number of foreign presence in their prisons are: Lombardy (3,640), Lazio (2,698), Piedmont (1774), Emilia Romagna (1,602), Tuscany (1545), Sicily (1,343), Veneto (1,194) and Campania (916) (Source: As for the religious aspect, among foreigners in detention, those belonging to the Islamic religion are the predominant percentage, clearly besides the presence of Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. In particular, the Maghreb component states to be, or is likely to be, Muslim. Taking into account other inmates from Asia and the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, one can estimate that more than one out of three foreign prisoners is Muslim. Penitentiary Regulation, Religious Freedom and Spiritual Assistance The penitentiary regulation says at art. 26 L. 354/1975 that «full freedom to practice one’s religion, to educate himself according to it and to practice its rites is guaranteed to all detainees and internees». In prison, the celebration of the Catholic rite and the presence of at least one chaplain is guaranteed, while prisoners of other faiths have the right to receive, upon request, the assistance of ministers of their religion and celebrate their rites, provided that they are compatible with the order and security and do not express harassing behavior to the community or contrary to the law. The Constitutional Court, in ruling no. 26/1999, showed that the subjection to the restriction of personal freedom cannot result in the denial of inviolable human rights, since they cannot be canceled entirely, even when restricted. For this reason, within the perspective of religious pluralism, the state guarantees full freedom to avail of spiritual assistance, allowing ministers of different religions to freely carry out their activities. While the presence of Catholic chaplains in prison is guaranteed by specific rules that institutionalize this figure and his function, for members of other faiths we must distinguish between those that have an agreement and those that are regulated by the law on “cults allowed” of 1929. As for the denominations that have an agreement with the state, they regulate independently the modalities in which the exercise of religious assistance, to prisoners who request it, is guaranteed. In this case, the provisions contained in the law implementing the agreement prevail on the law on “cults allowed” of 1929 and the general legislation. For this reason, no special audit is requested by the central management of cults within the Interior Ministry for the ministers of one of those denominations in order to enter into detention institutes. In addition, the correctional facility authorities are obliged to grant suitable spaces for the worship. However, with regard to inmates belonging to denominations that do not yet have an agreement with the state, as is the case with Islam, these prisoners may ask the penitentiary director for the intervention of a minister of their religion and the possibility to celebrate their religious rites. In these cases too, prison administration grants suitable spaces for their practices. Moreover, Article 58 of the regulation of penitentiary system’s implementation (DPR 230/2000) states that «ministers of religion are indicated» by the Interior Ministry, through the expression of an opinion requested by the Prison Administration Department, after verification by part of the jurisdiction of local Prefecture. Alternatively, the entry of ministers of religion may be authorized under Article 17 of the penitentiary regulation, as these figures may include operators belonging to the external community that collaborate in the rehabilitative action, promoting «the development of contacts between the prison community and free society». To compensate for the lack of a list of Islamic religious ministers, the circular No. 5354554 of 6 May 1997 and No. 508 110 of January 2, 2002 have identified a procedure that provides for the communication to the general direction detainees and treatment and the Interior Ministry of the generality of the minister, in addition to the mosque or to the community to which the minister belongs, for the acquisition of the opinion regarding the authorization for access to the prison. According to the data, updated to October 31, 2016, provided by the general direction of inmates and their treatment at the Department of Penitentiary Administration, the ministers authorized to access the prisons are a total of 1,377, of which 47 Muslims (Source: However, to those who are specifically authorized must be added those who, in the institutions, spontaneously and not always with proven competencies, take this role in a context also characterized by many personal fragility. Given the situation, the specific formation process for imams to play a role within correctional facilities has become particularly urgent. And the Council for Relations with Italian Islam, an organ set up in January 2016 by former Interior Minister Angelino Alfano with advisory functions with regards to the integration of the population of Islamic culture and religion in Italy, wrote a first Report (Public role, recognition and formation of imams, April 2016) that moves precisely in this direction, it states: «Given the importance of the role that both the Islamic communities and civil society recognize in imams within the national public space, the Council decided to point out, as the strategic axis of the relations with Italian Islam, the formation and enhancement of “Italian” spiritual guides. With this synthetic formula we refer to spiritual leaders rooted and integrated in Italy, who know the constitutional principles at the foundation of the Republic, aware of its history and fundamental social dynamics, respectful of the cultural and religious traditions and committed to promoting coexistence, the common good and respect for the law». Penitentiaries, Muslims, and Operators’ Formation Following particularly tragic events that shook the international community and have made everyone aware of the fragility of peace, as well as the need to build a culture of dialogue and cooperation, in recent years, in countries with both a long and a more recent immigration experience, particular attention has been paid to Muslim minorities, to the point that they became one of the main elements of reflection on integration models and practices. Among the various elements probed and examined, there is the condition of Muslims within prisons, since their relevant presence is one of those aspects that most involves the operators who for various reasons have contacts with prison contexts. It is an element that not infrequently evokes fears of proselytizing and radicalism (James, Joly, Khosrokhavar, 2005), in an environment of deprivation of liberty, bureaucratic rigidity and various constraints, as well as deficiencies in resources (Rhazzali, 2014, 2010). In addition to the role of formed and authorized figures, such as religious ministers, the role of cultural mediators is also particularly crucial, a professional who is conceived, of course, within a wide networking with other professionals present in prisons in order to develop a range of new skills able to respond to diverse needs and discomforts (Cuciniello, 2016). In prison space special training centered on history, culture, the traditions of the most represented ethnic groups, could prevent situations of denial and separation that are likely to feed the fertile ground for the development of fundamentalism as a further closing response (Romanelli, 2012; Higher Institute for Penitentiary Studies, 2012). From this point of view the Training Course on violent radicalization and proselytism inside penitentiary facilities proposed to the prison service personnel and psychosocial area operators in different institutions of education of prison staff is a concrete response from the Interior Ministry compared to the scenarios and strategies outlined by the European Union initiatives aimed at bringing attention to the prevention of radicalization inside prisons. At the same time, among the priorities of the training program is achieving a proper understanding of Islamic culture, looking to bring about a positive impact within management and within the relationship with inmates of the Muslim faith and overcoming stereotypes and prejudices. An equally interesting solution, which stands as a best practice and that has seen active involvement on the part of the detainees, is the documentary by director Marco Santarelli, Dustur (2016), “constitution” in Arabic. Structured as a journey between the “inside” and “outside”, the documentary follows the story of the Muslim prisoners of Dozza engaged in a course by father Ignazio De Francesco on the Italian Constitution and Samad, a young Moroccan former prisoner at a correctional facility in Bologna. Sources Cuciniello, A. (2016). L’Islam nelle carceri italiane, Fondazione ISMU, Milano, in Istituto Superiore di Studi Penitenziari (2012). La radicalizzazione del terrorismo islamico. Elementi per uno studio del fenomeno del proselitismo in carcere, in «Quaderni ISSP», in: del__terrorismo_islamico.pdf James, B., Joly, D., Khosrokhavar, F. (2005). Muslims in prison: Challenge and change in Britain and France, Palgrave Macmillan, New York. Rhazzali, M.K. (2014). I musulmani e i loro cappellani. Soggettività, organizzazione della preghiera e assistenza religiosa nelle carceri italiane, in Angelucci, A., Bombardieri, M., Tacchini, D. (a cura di), Islam e integrazione in Italia, Marsilio, Venezia. Rhazzali, M.K. (2010). L’Islam in carcere. L'esperienza religiosa dei giovani musulmani nelle prigioni italiane, FrancoAngeli, Milano. Romanelli, R. (2012). The Jihadist Threat in jail: Islam and the processes of radicalization in European prisons, in «Archivio penale», n. 2, in: The_Jihadist_Threat_in_jail_Romanelli.pdf