Romani Mothers & Babies Face Prison Sentences or Child Removal Under Proposed New Bill in Italy

12 June 2024

By Judit Ignacz

Imagine holding your newborn baby, feeling their tiny heartbeat against your chest, and looking into their innocent eyes. Now, imagine doing that in a prison cell. This was the reality for a Romani woman from Romania who found herself incarcerated in the women's section of the Lorusso and Cutugno prison in Turin, Italy, with her one-month-old baby, Aslan.

On February 1, 2024, this disturbing incident was reported from the Lorusso and Cutugno prison in Turin, Italy. A Romani woman from Romania was incarcerated along with her one-month-old baby. This event gained media attention and revealed another imprisoned Romani woman with her two children, aged one and three, in the same women's section of the prison. The reason these infants were in prison?  Because they are Roma. Their mother was unable to request house arrest because she resided in a "nomad camp”, an ethnically segregated living area, many of which were created by Italian public authorities and left to decay.  This second mother was therefore left with no choice but to raise her children in a place lacking comfort and security.

Behind Italy's vibrant culture and rich history looms shocking levels of institutional and societal racism towards Romani people. Recently, this manifested in this novel, if grave, heartbreaking human rights issue that remains unresolved. The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) has recently brought to light the ongoing shocking discrimination faced by women, particularly immigrant and Romani women and their children, across Italian prisons — an issue that urgently demands attention and action.

The ERRC addressed a letter to the Minister of Justice on 6 March 2024 regarding the Detention of Romani Women with Minor Children in Italian Prisons, urgently requesting that the Minister develop a comprehensive plan and detention measures that adequately address the situation of women in Italian prisons, with particular attention to pregnant women and those with children.

The public outcry and pressure from media and civil society led to the transfer of Aslan and his mother to the ICAM (Mitigated Custody Institution for Detained Mothers) in Turin - a setting more appropriate for a mother and her newborn. It is crucial to note that ICAMs still represent detention situations despite offering better conditions. Hence, the distressing conditions for many other women, notably those of Romani ethnicity and their minor children, remain unchanged.

The Struggles of Romani Women and Children in Italian Prisons

The situation is not unique to Turin. Similar instances have been reported from prisons nationwide, such as the San Vittore prison in Milan and Rebibbia prison in Rome. In these facilities, Romani women and their children continue to face challenging conditions that affect not only the mothers but also the futures of their children.

According to data from the Ministry of Justice, 20 detained mothers with 22 children are in custody in total, one of the highest rates in Europe. In Italy, women make up over 4 percent of the total prison population. They go to prison mainly for minor crimes against property, particularly for thefts. The largest group of detained mothers in Italy (8, with 8 children) is in the ICAM of Lauro, followed by that of Milan (5 detainees and 5 children). The other detained mothers are in the ICAM of the Lorusso and Cotugno in Turin, the Giudecca in Venice, and Foggia and Lecce.

Although Italian law 354 of 1975 establishes that a woman with an infant under three, in case it is not decided to postpone the sentence , can decide to entrust them to someone else or keep them with her, many women do not have the option to choose. "I decided to keep my son with me because I had no one to entrust him to," says in an Il Post article, a 33-year-old immigrant woman detained at the ICAM of San Vittore in Milan with her two-year-old son. Another 32-year-old woman detained in Lauro shared her story of seeking reunification with her son. Despite initially entrusting him to her cousin, he was later placed in a foster home, and she had no information about him for six months.

A woman in prison with children can keep them until they are six years old if in custody, ideally under house arrest or in a protected family home, which is a community-type facility where the woman remains under surveillance. If serving a final sentence, she can keep them until they are 10 years old. If her sentence is under four years, she can serve it under house arrest or in a protected family home or ICAM. Protected family homes were established under Law 62 of 2011 without state financial coverage provided. Consequently, only two have been opened in Italy: one in Milan, managed by the CIAO association, and one in Rome, named Casa di Leda, managed by the Alice Onlus Cooperative.

A prison cell's cold, grey walls are no place for a child, they hinder the child's growth, development, and well-being. The nursery sections of ordinary prisons, which, unlike the ICAMs, are not located in separate buildings and are much less equipped: of the 12 in Italy, eight do not even have outdoor areas equipped for children.

Even though ICAMs differ from traditional prisons and allow detainees to stay with their children, a detainee expressed her guilt when her child wanted to go home to Il Post: "Every now and then, my daughter stamps her feet on the ground and tells me she wants to go home: it hurts, and it's hard to explain to her that we can't go home for a while." 

ICAMs have colourful designs, gardens, playrooms, libraries, and unrecognizable security systems set up to mitigate the prison experience for kids. However, it is still a prison with potential negative impacts on children's emotional and physical development. According to Elisabetta Fontana, president of the CIAO Association managing a protected family home in Milan, the prison environment can significantly impact children's development. Children display clear signs of discomfort from prison-related elements, such as noises reminiscent of bars and gates. This also manifests in their play, often involving pretend calls to the police and an obsession with keys.

One of the detainees shares to Il Post the struggles of explaining to her son why the police have locked the door: "I tell him it's because we have to go wash, but I see that he's not convinced." Other times, he asks her why she cannot accompany him to kindergarten: "I tell him that I can't go out because I have to work”. However, she often finds herself at a loss for words in front of his questions, leading to his impatience.

Biased measures in legislation

The issue is further complicated by the new “security bill” proposed by Georgia Meloni’s far-right government, which was approved by the Council of Ministers on 16th November and is now awaiting final approval before the Parliament. Among other measures, this bill would restrict the right of mothers (pregnant or with children) to serve their sentence outside of a prison cell, as well as access alternative sentencing or deferral of their sentence.

While the bill makes no direct mention of Roma, it has been couched in racist rhetoric by politicians and the media who describe it as the tool they’ve been waiting for to lock up poor Romani women who beg or commit petty crimes.

In an attack on his political rivals, the far-right leader of the Lega party Matteo Salvini said that the Democratic Party (Pd) wants to release "Roma pickpockets who use children and pregnancy to avoid prison." Not only Salvini but other Lega parliamentarians also insist that Romani women take advantage of pregnancy to avoid prison.

Public funding for protected family homes was a significant innovation in a bill approved last year by the Chamber of Deputies before being reintroduced by the Democratic Party in the new legislature. However, the Democratic Party withdrew the bill last March after the right-wing majority approved some amendments. According to the bill's proponents, these amendments distorted its original objectives and principles. The Lega defended the amendments, arguing that "being pregnant or a mother of young children should not be a free pass for habitual and professional pickpockets to evade prison and continue committing crimes."

Potential Solutions

The campaign "Mothers Out, from Stigma and Prison, with their Children" mobilised many in Italy to defend the rights of detained mothers and their children and oppose the 'security bill,' claiming that it had become selective and restrictive. This newly drafted rule targets women who are prone to reoffending, often those who commit minor crimes against property.  This has led to the media and public labelling it as the "anti-shoplifting law." The rule appears to promote racism and classism and perpetuate racist stereotypes associated with the Romani communities, further reinforcing systemic discrimination. It targets the most vulnerable and excluded women living in poverty, further worsening their situation.

According to Susanna Marietti, the coordinator of the Antigone Association, neither removing children from prison by separating them from their mothers nor creating pockets of impunity, where they are exempt from serving a sentence if they have children, are viable solutions. The problem can only be solved by fostering a genuine culture of using alternatives to prison, such as protected family homes. Mauro Palma, the National Guarantor of the Rights of Prisoners, an independent body that safeguards prisoner conditions, shares beliefs that ICAMs should only be used in extreme cases, with priority given to protected family homes.

The Italian justice system is neglecting the rights and welfare of women, especially Romani women and their children, many of whom are discriminated against and oppressed. In light of these alarming events, Italy must prioritize alternative measures to prison. This applies not only to ICAMs, which are still in detention situations despite better conditions but also to increase the number of family shelters—a more suitable environment for children and an essential educational opportunity for those prone to repeating crimes. Romani women and their children deserve to be treated humanely, no matter their ethnicity or the circumstances leading to their incarceration.


Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.


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