COVID-19 Emergency in Italian Prisons: Antigone Releases Annual Report

Antigone has released its sixteenth annual report, which explores the situation in Italian correctional facilities during 2019 and the first months of 2020.

By Manuela Costa

In the report entitled “Prison in the time of the Coronavirus” (here the press kit in English) Patrizio Gonnella, Antigone’s president, points out how the granting of video calls and more phone calls to keep in touch with relatives during this hard time should be seen as a vital victory for inmates that helps them to avoid isolation and loneliness. The hope is that this win could soon become a right for prisoners.

Before the pandemic

At the end of February 2020 official figures showed that there were 61,230 inmates in Italian prisons, even though the official capacity is only 50,931. The average occupancy rate was 130.4%, reaching a peak of 194.7% in Larino, which means Italy has the second most overcrowded prisons in Europe. Antigone’s observers visited 98 prisons over the course of 2019 and the analysis of the data they collected showed that in 45 facilities there was no hot water, while 25 institutions failed to fulfill the minimum standard of three square meters per prisoner in each cell. In fact, there were even prisons that housed 12 inmates in the same cell (Poggioreale, Pozzuoli and Bolzano). Italy has the second highest rate in Europe of inmates over 50 years old (25%). And during the last ten years there has also been an increase in the length of sentences, with about 27% of them lasting more than 10 years.

To see the videos shot in the correctional facilities by Antigone click here.

How the Italian prison system dealt with coronavirus

As of 15 May, the prison population was 52,679, which means that the occupancy rate had dropped to 112.2%. This decrease can partly be explained by the “Cura Italia” decree, released of 17 March, which identifies home detention as the main instrument to reduce the prison population. Electronic monitoring is applied to all prisoners with a final sentence and a residual sentence of between 6 and 18 months. In the region of Emilia Romagna, for example, 21% of the prison population was sent home. On 15 April, 30,416 people were benefiting from alternative measures such as home detention, social services, and semi-freedom were, whereas in 2008 the number was a quarter of this. On 2 May, following serious public unrest related to the release of Mafia bosses (allegedly due to new laws on coronavirus, while in reality the release of two of them was made possible thanks to pre-existing laws unrelated to coronavirus) Francesco Basentini, former head of the Department of the Penitentiary Administration, resigned and Bernardo Petralia, magistrate and consultant for the Antimafia commission, was designated as the new head. As of 15 May, 119 inmates and 162 prison staff members had tested positive for coronavirus in Italy, which has caused the death of four prisoners, two penitentiary officers and two doctors. Apparently, similar figures have been collected in France and Spain. Antigone’s report also tries to analyse the protests that took place in 49 prisons between 7 and 9 March, when the first decree that greatly limited prison life was introduced, which caused the deaths of 13 inmates because of overdose. Antigone has created two maps that provide updates on how the Covid-19 situation is developing in Italian and European prisons.

Antigone’s proposals for the future

Antigone has made some proposals with the aim of improving the current situation in correctional facilities:

1. Reduce the number of offences

2. Reduce the prison population by overcoming a prison-centric view of the penal system

3. Change the law on drugs by reducing its repressive impact

4. Allow smartphones and long-distance contacts to maintain prisoners' contacts with families and for educational purposes and activities related to inmates' personalized plans

5. Investing in new technologies

6. Transparency of information to the outside world

7. Informing prisoners on all internal rules and practices

8. A more active role of the health system, new doctors, and stable personnel

9. Recognizing the role of volunteering

10. Hiring 300 prison directors.

To see the full presentation of the report click here.

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