Italian Prisons in a Time of Coronavirus: In Search of a Solution

The penitentiary system is facing a grave situation with the coronavirus pandemic, with protests and riots exploding on 8 March and the Government failing to elaborate a solution to limit the spread of the virus in prisons.

Protests and riots in prisons

Starting on Sunday 8 March and running into Monday, protests in Italian prisons exploded with different degrees of gravity. Detainees beat the bars of their cells, burned mattresses, broke out of their wings and onto roofs, and in one case they even managed to escape. On 12 March the authorities confirmed the death of fourteen detainees, most of whom died during or after a riot at Modena prison, where inmates broke into the infirmary and overdosed on medications used to treat addictions. Riots or protests took place at 40 prisons throughout Italy, including Naples (Poggioreale), Frosinone, Salerno, Ancona, Foggia, Milan (San Vittore), Rome (Rebibbia), Palermo (Ucciardone), and Pavia. By the end of Monday, the situation had calmed down in many of the prisons, thanks in part to mediation from civilian authorities.

There seems to be no single cause of the riots, rather it is likely that multiple factors have played a role in fueling the protests.

Overcrowding

Overcrowding of the Italian penitentiary system has been chronic for years and as of the end of February there were 61,230 detainees for 50,931 available places, which means a prison population rate of 120.2%. However, Antigone has estimated a rate of 130%. In practice, this means adding one or two beds to many cells, it means cramped spaces and too few activities and jobs for too many people. To this already critical situation, further limitations aimed at containing the spread of the Coronavirus were introduced, which sparked the protests.

More limitations due to the Coronavirus

In the last few weeks, the Penitentiary Administration has issued some internal regulations in an attempt to tackle the Coronavirus. The danger of a Coronavirus outbreak in a penitentiary institute is clear: overcrowding makes separating inmates very difficult, and containing the disease practically impossible.

Measures against the infection needed to be put in place. In some prisons, visits and activities were limited, and visitors were screened on entry. Other institutes decided to completely shut down all activities and visits even if they were located far from the Coronavirus outbreaks. This caused unrest in an already cramped and nervous prison population. It also caused anxiety among prisoners' families, who often did not know if visits were still taking place, and could only gather this information by calling the prisons.

Finally, on 8 March, the authorities decided to completely forbid visits with families and suspend all educational activities in all prisons, while improving access to phone calls and video calls for detainees to reduce their isolation at a difficult time. However, not all prisons complied with this, which sparked the protests and riots.

Proposals to relieve the pressure on prisons

In the past few days, Antigone, together with Anpi, Arci, Cgil and Gruppo Abele, has developed some proposals to reduce the number of prisoners, to encourage contact with the outside world, to prevent the contagion and to support prison staff.

Proposals for reducing the number of prisoners include extending probation and home detention to prisoners with health problems, overnight home detention for people on day-release so that they do not have to return to the prison in the evening, extending home detention to those on sentences up to thirty-six months. These measures would allow authorities to drastically reduce the number of people detained and would help to safeguard their health as well as that of prison workers.

A cautious step forward with probable insufficient results

On 16 March the government issued a decree to deal with the prison emergency with a change of regulations for home detention. According to the proponents of the decree, 2,000-3,000 people should be released in the next few weeks, provided that the surveillance judiciary interprets the rules extensively. This is clearly not enough. Several thousand places in prisons need to be freed-up so individual cells are available for inmates that test positive for the virus. It is also urgent to send detainees who are particularly vulnerable because of their age or existing conditions to their homes or places of treatment, because contracting the virus while detained could have dire consequences.

The Coronavirus emergency cannot be considered resolved with these measures. It is necessary to free more places in prisons and to enhance social and health quality of life inside them.