Patrie Galere: Shedding light on Italy’s prisons’ death toll


By Jacopo Ottaviani, Il Fatto Quotidiano


Patrie Galere is a map I made displaying deaths in Italian prisons, recorded from January 2002 to May 2012. It is based on data released by the Ministry of Justice of Italy and the Centro Studi Ristretti Orizzonti, a non-profit association working for prisoners' rights. This data journalism project has been published by Il Fatto Quotidiano, a young yet leading Italian newspaper. An English version is also available and has been featured in the Guardian Datablog last week.

Almost one thousand deaths were registered in ten years in Italy. 56% died as a result of suicide and 22% of sickness. The project started with the aim of shedding light on the conditions detainees are often forced to live in. Most prisons are overcrowded and do not offer adequate living conditions, such as medical provision and hygiene. This project provides an overview of the phenomenon in terms of location and causes of death. 

It is based on two sources. The first – the Ministry of Justice – provides the list of prisons in Italy, including their geographical addresses and contacts. The second – Ristretti Orizzonti – consists of an independent bulletin containing data on deaths in custody. Such bulletins report information about prisoners who deceased, including names, dates and prisons where they died. 


The visualisation was realised with Batchgeo

The interactive map was developed by cross-referencing these two sources and each step of the development process involved a different, free-of-charge technology. Data was scraped using ScraperWiki and refined with Google Refine; the resulting tables were merged using Google Fusion and finally visualised through Batchgeo.

The biggest challenge was making the data consistent, mostly because the sources did not follow any open data standard. However, free tools such as Google Refine and Batchgeo reduced the workload and speeded up the development process, which took about one month in total (with only me working on it).

Each marker on the map represents a death, coloured on the basis of the cause (suicide, sickness, overdose, homicide and unclear circumstances). By clicking on the details about the deaths, further information is shown: name, surname, age of the detainee, along with date and cause of his or her death. Markers are clustered in pie charts to better view the issue at various zoom levels.


The study brought to light many stories not covered by the mainstream media

Many stories can be discovered by navigating the map. Most of them haven’t been covered by mainstream media. For instance, almost nobody was fully aware about the almost forty deaths of those detained in mental hospitals since 2002; or about prisoners who took a drug overdose behind bars.

Some stories clash with our perceived stereotypes of prisoners: nobody normally imagines that those who die in jail may be women, like Francesca Caponnetto, deceased in Messina in 2004 – or very young, such as a 17-year old boy, who committed suicide in Firenze, in 2009. No one knows about 50 young prisoners who died aged under 23. Stories like these emerge from the map.


Linking numbers to real life is the best way to make a story meaningful

While anonymous statistics do not give rise to consternation, stories are supposed to shake the public opinion. Besides giving an overview of deaths in custody in the last 10 years, this data journalism project is intended to give numbers a place, an identity and a story.

The data and the map are available on Google Fusion and on the website of Il Fatto Quotidiano, respectively. An English version is also available.