Prisoners and Human Rights in Modern Italy
Society for Italian Historical Studies 6
In recent years, the study of prisons and prisoners has been expanding in time and space, beyond the great prison reform era of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the United States and Europe. Important books on prisons in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have generated a new, global history of crime and punishment. At the same time, a more general turn toward world history has begun to inspire modern Italian historians to rethink the established national time frames and boundaries of their field in terms of broader, transnational developments. Our panel aims to respond to these challenges, by considering the history of prisons and prisoners in Italy over a two-hundred-year period, and by engaging with the latest global scholarship on penal regimes and human rights.
All three papers address the impact of major political transitions on policing, prison administration, and human rights. Steve Soper’s paper on the Risorgimento period discusses the important role political prisoners played in mobilizing international support for Italian unification, but also the tensions and misunderstandings that developed, before and after the prisoners’ “liberation”, as the more complex reality of prison conditions in Italy broke through the patriotic and humanitarian script of shared suffering. Mary Gibson’s paper addresses the gendered limits of the Liberal state’s expansion of human rights after unification. Right up to the First World War, she argues, Italian prisons effectively treated only its male inmates as productive, secular citizens in the making, and targeted female inmates for religious instruction and domestic, handicraft production. And Christian De Vito’s paper begins with Italy’s transition from fascism to democracy at the end of World War II, and traces the persistence of problems within Italian prisons across the dramatic social and political events of the postwar period, including the so-called ‘economic miracle’ of the 1950s and the revolts of 1968-69. The continuities in prison administration, law, and policing across Italy’s two most inspiring political divides – from the Risorgimento to liberal unity in 1861 and from fascism to democracy in 1945 – raise important questions about the politics of human rights in the modern era.
Taken together, the papers afford a long view of the history of prisons and prisoners in modern Italy, with a focus on the discourse of human rights and its shortcomings in practice. Our shared attention to the interplay between human rights inside and outside of prison – including the variable experiences of the wealthy and the poor, men and women, residents and migrants – and our desire to engage with a new global scholarship on crime and punishment, should make this a lively and appealing panel. Two scholars with a broad knowledge of Italian prisons and criminal justice, Charles Klopp (session chair) and Richard Bach Jensen (session commentator), will no doubt take the conversation that follows the presentations in a stimulating direction.