Rome, April 10 - Italy has formally challenged a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights ordering Italy to correct the "degrading and inhumane conditions" in its prisons and to pay 100,000 euros in damages to seven inmates. In January the Strasbourg-based court harshly criticized authorities for holding prisoners in crammed cells, specifically seven men who have been held at prisons in Busto Arsizio and Piacenza, both located in northern Italy. The inmates had fewer than three square meters of space each. Giovanni Tamburino, the head of Italy's department of corrections, said the appeal was aimed at giving authorities more time to address the issue. "The year we have to abide by the verdict will begin from the time Strasbourg rules" on the appeal, he said. At the time of the January ruling, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said Italy should be ashamed by the court's words, while Justice Minister Paola Severino said she wasn't shocked by the court's criticisms. "I am deeply humbled but unfortunately, today's sentence of the European Court of Human Rights does not surprise me," said Severino. Three days after the January ruling, Premier Mario Monti proposed a measure allocating 16 million euros for prisoner work programs aimed at relieving overcrowding. The country's prison conditions have long been the source of criticism from human rights groups. In December, the Permanent Observatory on Prison Deaths reported that inmate suicides in Italy are 20 times that of the general population, caused mostly by "environmental factors" and "illegal" detention conditions. The same month, Monti's administration issued a decree allowing prisoners to serve the last 18 months of their sentence under house arrest. Italy's decision Wednesday to challenge the Strasbourg ruling was blasted by prisoners' rights group Antigone for "buying time" to correct a problem "that should be fixed immediately". "It's a shyster's trick," said Patrizio Gonnella, the group's president. "It would have been better for Italy to roll up its sleeves and start working right away to bring its prisons within the law". Italy's corrections chief said Italy's problems lie in its lack of prisons. "If you look at the 47 countries in Europe, Italy is second only to Serbia when it comes to the lack of prison beds for every prisoner," said Tamburino. "The situation is serious. Italy is not above average when it comes to the incarceration rate. The problem is the number of prison structures. "In 2008, we hit the alarming ratio of 130 prisoners for every 100 spaces. "We must work in two directions: increasing prison space while lowering the prison population". The ruling in January was the latest in a long string of fines and penalties issued against Italy over the past year for a variety of offences. Italy picked up a record haul of fines in 2012 at the European Court of Human Rights, which ordered it to pay a total of 120 million euros last year to citizens whose rights had not been respected, according to a report released Wednesday. The figure is the highest annual fines total ever collected by any of the 47 states that are members of the Council of Europe. Italy is regularly fined by the court for the slowness of its legal system, which means Italians' right to have justice in a reasonable time frame is frequently infringed upon. Second to Italy for human rights fines in 2012 was Turkey with 23 million euros - over five times less than Italy.