Addressing Religious Differences in Italian Prisons: A Postsecular Perspective

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Irene Becci and Olivier Roy (eds.)Religious Diversity in European Prisons10.1007/978-3-319-16778-7_7

7. Addressing Religious Differences in Italian Prisons: A Postsecular Perspective

Valeria Fabretti 

Department ‘Scienze e Tecnologie della Formazione’ (STF) and ‘Centre for the Study and Documentation of Religions and Political Institutions in Postsecular Society’ (CSPS), University of Rome Tor Vergata, Rome, Italy



Valeria Fabretti

Postsecular spacesItalian prisonsCatholic chaplainsReligious minorities

7.1 Introduction

The central topic of this book, that is, the challenges that new religious diversity is addressing to prison employees, inmates, and the institution itself all over Europe, is increasingly an issue in Italy . Although the responsiveness to such challenges is still insufficient, the changes in the ethnic, cultural, and religious composition of the inmate population, with almost 35 % of foreign people, as well as the pressure from the European Union for a general enhancement of the recognition of religious rights and pluralism within the member states, represent relevant factors requiring major attention from our country towards the topic. At least partially, a new collective awareness of the need for institutional cultures and practices more sensitive to the issues linked with different religious belongings is arising, and it regards the case of prisons as well as other relevant public spaces (such as schools and hospitals).

Although it is beginning to be a field of study for social sciences, the topic is still poorly explored. The contributions on the case of prison, in particular, are still few in numbers1. In contrast, a quite consistent tradition of study is taking root, with regard to the examination of the different systems implemented in other European countries and their recent inner changes, mostly on the steps of the well-known first works of Beckford and colleagues (Beckford and Gilliat-Ray 1998; Beckford et al. 2005). As this volume attests, such studies suggest that despite the differences between cases, a common attempt is taking place to widen the boundaries between states and religions, to allow the inclusion of both traditional and “new” denominations, and to make this inclusion compatible with the rooted secularization models of each society and the pursuit of the prisonsʼ own institutional goals.

In other words, the various scenarios drafted by the national reconstructions attested in the past, and still attested in more recent years, that prisons must be considered as exemplary social spaces able to reflect the features of the broader (old and new) relations between the secular and the religious in given societies, on the one hand, and to generate new models through the dynamism of the local level, on the other hand. We approach the Italian case from this starting point and provide knowledge that will further advance the topic.

In this chapter,2 I briefly clarify, at first, the theoretical frame and design of the research. Second, and in a more extensive way, I highlight the main findings, with particular attention to some of the crucial areas of prison life supposed to be engaged with religious issues. To conclude, I attempt to clarify how our findings can provide a general understanding of the current situation in Italy .3

7.2 Prisons as Postsecular Spaces? How We Looked at the Italian Case

Three broad sociological premises guided our study . First, religion remains a central factor in today’s collective life, despite what is learned from simplistic secularization theories. Second, it is increasingly clear that its importance goes beyond the private and the individual: Religion concerns collective identities and groups within the public, social, and political spheres (Casanova 1994; Davie 2007). The third sociological condition is the increase in religious pluralism in Western, European societies (to keep to our ground), which contributes to the overcoming of monopolistic situations by the part of one or more religions in particular. Such a “picture” has much to do with the idea of a postsecular society, which is the notion we used as a frame for our research. Taking into account the skepticisms about the suitability of using a postsecular framing to study religion in prison (Beckford 2010, 2012), the study wanted to test the usefulness of the notion in social sciences on both the theoretical and the methodological ground, moving beyond the attempt to clarify its main features. In our understanding of the postsecular,4 it first refers to the three basic conditions mentioned above. In general terms, a postsecular society is characterized by a new awareness of the persistent and renewed public presence of religion, and the actual coexistence within the public sphere of secular and (pluri) religious worldviews and practices .5 Generally speaking, the notion highlights a fourth crucial point: a “response” on behalf of Western modernity, a change in mindset, potentially resulting from those conditions. The postsecular refers not to desecularized contexts, but to contexts in which an increased consciousness about the dialectic, and not merely oppositional, relationship between the “religious” and the “secular” (Knott 2005) takes place. Dialectical relationships and “interpenetrations,” (Göle 2005) in principle, raise the possibility of new configurations of both secular and religious viewpoints and practices (Rosati and Stoekl 2012). In this sense, the capacity of secular and religious actors to be reflexive and to bring their own logics in dialogue is assumed, and mutual transformation or—in the well-known expression of Habermas (2006a)—complementary learning is expected to potentially be triggered.6

According to these premises, the study is primarily concerned with the responses of penal institutions, rather than the inmates’ personal religious and spiritual experience.7 We considered prisons as social spaces in which one can recognize the reflexes of broader social features. Here, our focus goes on two main points: consolidated models of secularization and views of the secular and the religious on the one hand and impacts of religious collective dimension and of religious pluralism on the institution on the other hand. Moreover, we consider prisons as a potential reflex signaling an increase in awareness and in the capacity of institutional actors to address religious issues in a secular environment.

7.2.1 Indications on the Methodology Adopted and Research Questions

The one year research project8 has provided multiple case studies, examining 10 of the 14 institutes existing in the Italian region of Lazio, a territory in which the percentage of foreign inmates is very close to the national average. Within the ten cases,9 a consistent document analysis, and more than 100 focused interviews with secular and religious actors (directors, educators, guards, psychologists, cultural mediators, volunteers, and obviously chaplains and representatives of the different traditions engaged in religious assistance) have been carried out. A first general aim was to look at how the actors understand the role and space of religion in prison, followed by an attempt to systematically reconstruct the practices of religious assistance and to focus on how they take shape accordingly to actors’ representations. Moreover, according to the postsecular perspective, a particular point was relevant. Is the changing social scenario—the increasing religious pluralism and visibility of the different religious groups and demands in the Italian public sphere and institutional spaces—somehow soliciting prisons to better address the new challenges? Do shared practices, mutual exchanges, reflexivity, and complementary learning somehow occur in a space in which secular-institutional and pluri-religious identities are increasingly cohabiting? And finally, which conditions are necessary in order to trigger this kind of dialectic process? As it will become clear with regard to some of the crucial areas of religious assistance we focused on, this positive development has yet to be measured. At least in the cases under investigation, this positive development is hindered by certain limitations and delays: in particular, a still weak pluralistic culture and a tendency to treat religion as a purely private matter.

7.3 Religion in the Communication Between Institutions and Inmates

First, we considered the space of religion as a category within the information and communication processes involving prisons and inmates. We observed which procedures prisons follow in the very first phase of the inmates’ entrance in the institution—those crucial rituals of imprisonment notoriously described by Goffman (1961)—and the meanings the employees give to such practices. Both “sides of the coin” need to be identified. On one side, it is relevant to find out whether the staff collects data on inmates’ religious belonging at the moment they enter the prison, or if they collect this data during the rehabilitation process later on. On the other side, we also need to observe whether religion comes into consideration when inmates are told of their rights and of the possibilities that are available to them during imprisonment. With regard to both points, religion reveals to be not a relevant variable in the way institutions relate to detainees. Inmates’ religious belonging is usually not recorded, neither at their entrance into prison, nor later on during the rehabilitation programs given by educators, psychologists, and social workers. Intentional and ordinary communications to inmates about their rights concerning religion is substantially lacking, too. Prison personnel assume that this type of information circulates informally among the inmates: They can find it autonomously in the internal regulations, or they can ask prison guards on a personal basis. On the whole, we did not find significant differences among the ten cases we studied.

These two insufficiencies regarding religion in the communication process reflect something more than contingent oversights. As the analysis of the interview transcripts brought to the fore, they are signals of a largely widespread idea that religion is a “very personal and intimate dimension” (an educator), “something that one feels inside” (a social worker). We did not record significant divergences between the employees’ points of view regarding this concern. Religion is basically represented as “a private affair” which finds its place in the individual request more than in the official vocabulary of the institutions. In many cases, educators, security agents, and social workers admit that they consider it to be inopportune to ask questions about religion in their conversations with inmates. Such a tendency is often legitimized by the prison personnel by referring to a professional ethic inspired by strict “neutrality” and “respectfulness” toward the inmates’ personal differences.

For me the inmates are all equal regardless of their religious belonging. I do not distinguish on the basis of religion, unless itʼs brought to my attention…otherwise I prefer not to inquire about what kind of religion they practice. (An educator)

They argued that they needed to limit their own intervention on the theme, as they considered it to be sufficient to simply respond to prisoners when they eventually demanded for religious services and possibilities.

We don’t go and tell them “you can require for [religion assistance]”, we never intervene in these matters, it doesn’t seem right for me to do it. I mean, we absolutely do not intend to apply pressure, neither positive nor negative. If there’s something they need they will ask for it but I don’t solicit a request from them, it is a matter of respect for those who don’t practice religion. (…) I fear they may feel attending worships is somehow a duty, for example. (…) I think one should have a secular orientation towards religion, so to speak. It means not to interfere and therefore to only eventually respond to their requests, and this certainly applies for all. (A prison director)

This is a first crucial result. The influence of such a representation on practices of communication with inmates tends to hinder a systematic implementation of religious assistance, prior to possible requests by single inmates. In fact, if knowledge about the plural religious affiliations is precluded (indeed prison directors and staff often do not seem to “have their pulse on the situation” about it), it can be assumed that the consequent planning of services for religious care is precluded too. And if the communication to inmates of their religious right is limited, the availability of information enabling inmates to access the existing religious services may be limited, too. Under these conditions, the visibility of the different religious groups mostly depends on the evidence of their demands and, in turn, the rising of requests derives in a large part on the clearness of the offer (e.g., highlighting information about the presence of a certain religious minister in many cases determines an increase of inmates requiring his assistance). In other terms, the blurring of the category of religion in the communication process between prison and inmates is likely to induce a narrowing of the overall process of religious care. In very recent years, something might be partially in progress about this point. The Italian Minister of Justice has adopted a “Charter of Rights’” which, in principle, is aimed at a more explicit and effective communication to inmates. Significantly, however, the document still reserves only minimal consideration to religious rights and services. It limits the argument to the sole “right to benefit from the Catholic Chaplain’ spiritual care and to take part in the religious rites in the catholic chapels or in spaces arranged for worships of other denominations.”10 Whatever the specific forms of communication that prisons adopt, the point relative to a conscious and systematic communication appears crucial, both as a test of cultural maturation of the institution, and for its potential impact in making the demand of religious assistance emerge.

7.3.1 The Chaplaincy

The history of the chaplaincy in Italy is strongly linked to the religious history of the country and to its largely Catholic composition. Although profound changes are affecting the Italian religious landscape, with a gradual pluralization of affiliations, and although Italian jurisdiction on religious freedom and assistance in prison has significantly changed from the thirties to the present,11 the position of monopoly traditionally held by Catholicism in penitentiaries remains substantially unchanged. It is true that the process of secularization, touching prisons like other social institutions, has resulted in the removal of functions traditionally granted to the chaplain, referring among other things to rehabilitation and custody. However, it is also true that, as can be observed in some other European cases, chaplaincy still plays (a more or less explicit) role in the organization of prison life and in the sphere of “control.”

According to prison regulations (DPR n. 230/2000), Catholic worship, education, and spiritual care are secured by one or more chaplains entrusted by prison administration. In every correction facility, a Catholic chaplain paid by the state works for about 18 h a week, equipped with an office and a chapel.

In the cases we have studied, religious practices associated with Catholicism depended mostly on factors such as the individual personality of the chaplain, his habits and routines, and the resources—temporal and spatial, but also human, economic, etc.—available to him. These aspects vary significantly from prison to prison and contribute to delineating a variety of chaplaincy “styles.” In most cases, the chaplains guarantee regular visits, but concentrate on one or another of their duties, according to their personal understanding of chaplaincy: These range from economic and material to human and relational support, in addition to specifically spiritual and religious forms of support. In the prisons in Rome especially, the chaplain runs a well-structured support group of volunteers coming from the Catholic community (priests, nuns, lay volunteers, etc.). Overall, the chaplaincy possesses a certain autonomy. A reliance on the chaplain’s space for action—more than that enjoyed by other religious figures—is part of the particularly close relation between him and the direction or, in general, the prison staff . As for penal institutions, they seem to delegate to (or “capitalize on”) the chaplaincy to make up for the structural lack of resources when responding to the various needs of inmates.

Catholic chaplains only partially participate to, and facilitate, the management of religious and spiritual care for other religions. On the whole, the chaplains we met tended to consider the implementation of spiritual care of different religions mainly on the basis of the relations historically established between the Church and these other religious traditions. From what we observed, these included a positive orientation towards Orthodox religious ministers, a minor involvement in the services of protestant ministers, a certain tension with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a lack of links with Muslim communities. Such inequalities in Chaplains’ facilitations of other denominations is likely to be detrimental to their potential contribution to a more balanced estimation of the different needs associated with religious care .

In Italy as in various European countries, a gradual rethinking of prison chaplaincy , in the extent to which its composition is representative to the inmates’ religious belongings, is at stake. It is particularly interesting to have a look at the cases of the UK and France, which started with a similar situation of monopoly by one or more religious groups, and gradually grew into an openness and inclusiveness of Chaplaincy towards other traditions. These processes have of course been the object of controversies and conflicts. They nevertheless bear witness to the fact that institutions can have relevant capability in interpreting and governing social changes.

7.3.2 Ministers and Services of “Other Religions”

According to the Italian legal frame, ministers of other religions can give assistance in response to specific requests from one or more inmates. Chaplains gain their access on three formal levels. First, specific agreements (Intese

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