di Mario Primerano
Strasbourg, May 3 - Italy's jails are the third most overcrowded in Europe behind Serbia and Greece, the Council of Europe said Friday. There are 147 inmates for every 100 beds in Italy, the 47-nation human rights organisation said, compared with a European average of 105. Italy is also third for the number of inmates awaiting trial, after Ukraine and Turkey. As many as one third of prison inmates are at high risk of developing a mental illness, Italian psychiatrists told a conference in Rome last month. About 20,000 of the 70,000 inmates in Italian prisons have developed diseases such as psychosis, depression, severe anxiety, and bipolar disorder, they said. Some were mentally unwell before prison; others developed disorders once inside what some have described as "hell," according to the psychiatrists. Prison inmates are nine times more likely to attempt suicide than in the general Italian population - and that rate is quickly climbing. Since 1960, a 300% increase in prison suicides has been reported. Guards dealing with prisoners are also becoming less mentally healthy, the experts say: between 2000 and 2011, 68 suicides were reported among Italian prison workers. Overcrowding, a key factor in the problem, has been tackled by successive Italian governments but little has improved. New Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri said Thursday she would address the "very delicate and very important issue" of prison suicides. "It's a serious issue that we want to address with determination, but first of all we need to understand it thoroughly," Cancellieri said during a visit to Rome's Regina Coeli prison. Roughly 60 prisoners in Italy commit suicide each year, or roughly 20 times the average for the general population, according to a December 2012 Permanent Observatory on Prison Deaths report. The country's prison conditions have long been the source of criticism from human rights groups. In January the European Court of Human Rights harshly criticized authorities for holding prisoners in crammed cells. In April Italy challenged a ruling that orders it to correct the "degrading and inhumane conditions" in its prisons and to pay 100,000 euros in damages to seven inmates. The inmates had fewer than three square meters of space each.