di Marcello Mento
(By Christopher Livesay) Strasbourg, May 27 - The European Court of Human Rights has rejected Italy's appeal against a sentence condemning Rome for the state of Italian jails, ANSA sources said Monday. In April, Italy formally challenged the Strasbourg-based court when it ordered Rome to correct the "degrading and inhumane conditions" in its prisons and to pay 100,000 euros in damages to seven inmates. In January the court, which is part of the Council of Europe, harshly criticized authorities for holding prisoners in crammed cells, specifically seven men held in fewer than three square meters of space at prisons in Busto Arsizio and Piacenza, both located in northern Italy. The definitive ruling Monday means Italy now has one year to find a solution to its prison overcrowding and to implement a procedure for paying damages to victims. 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 Council of Europe reported earlier this month that Italy's jails are the third most overcrowded in Europe behind Serbia and Greece. 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. Hours before the European Court of Human Rights ruling Monday, roughly 50 guards at the Naples Poggioreale prison formed a human chain in protest of a personnel shortage and overcrowding. Overcrowding has been tackled by successive Italian governments but little has improved. Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri said last week that Italy's prisons were "unworthy of a civilized country". "In order to solve the problem, it's not enough to build new prisons, but instead to rethink the sentencing process, and evaluate whether there is room for alternatives," she added. The ruling Monday is 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.