To understand the disaster that is currently gripping Italian prisons, we need to wind back the clock to the beginning of March. On Friday the 6th of March the evening news is blowing up on everyone’s home TV. The reports announce the frightening spread of the epidemic. During a weekend full of hectic news, 61,230 inmates (of which, 19,899 are foreign and 2,702 are women) from 189 Italian prisons that have a normal capacity of 50,931 beds watch on helplessly like the rest of the population does, while persistent alerts blare over the television in every broadcast. They listen to talk about quarantine, social distancing, face masks, continual hand washing and maintaining personal hygiene as tips that the entire population needs to observe as best it can. In the meantime, they get news that visits from relatives have been suspended until May 31 (the same thing occurred in retirement homes). They were promised Skype calls as the next best possible substitute regarding social distancing measures. But this was no different than trusting a pyromaniac with a lighter. 27 prisons were torn with riots. Fires broke out and devastation ravaged the detention facilities. In Modena’s prison, 7 convicts died. They ingested lethal quantities of methadone they stole from the infirmary. Other three overdose deaths occurred in the Prisons of Rieti and Foggia. But that’s not the only thing to happen in Foggia’s penitentiary. Amidst the chaos, 76 convicts made their great escape. 42 of them were caught soon after, and a further 33 managed to give police a good chase. 1 is still evading the police. After the riots died down, many prisoners have been moved from one facility to another. It’s a necessary precaution due to the lack of the available facilities and to keep the prisoners an adequate distance from the convicts that attended to the riots. But transferring the prisoners between different facilities is guaranteed to cause the spread of the infection. Official sources talk about hundreds of moves. The Minister of justice Alfonso Bonafede personally stated that the number of prisoners who participated in the riots were 6 thousand. At Tolmezzo, a Friuli Venezia-Giulia town, the Mayor was concerned that the inhabitants of his town were at risk because of five co-vid positive prisoners that were moved to the local prison from various Emilia-Romagna prisons. In the meantime, most of the nation’s jails have relatively insufficient facilities to test inmates and penitentiary workers. This is mirrored by the lack of testing and other medical equipment that the rest of the country has already experienced. In Treviso’s prison, workers and prisoners are still ‘in the dark’ medically speaking, due to the lack of tests and medical workers.

Overcrowding, forced cohabitation, and lack of medical resources threaten to explode into a new problem entirely, but to defuse these bombs that weigh on the Italian penitentiary facilities, especially those that have been built in inhabited centers, look to the “Cura Italia” (cure Italy) decree passed on March 17th. the government has established regulations to promote home detention for convicts nearing the end of their sentence and for those convicts who work outside of the prison on reintegration programs. The complete closure of the courts and the subsequent drop of crime both from quarantine measures, in particular theft, robberies and drug dealing have plummeted in the country. But is this enough? According to Rita Bernardini, we need heavier measures like amnesty and pardons to lighten prison terms, in a moment like this where the mortality rate in prisons could reach the same as that of elderly homes. The comparison between prisons and retirement facilities is quite accurate as many of the residents are the same age. In the jail of Parma, the average age of a convict is 65. Rita Bernardini is a leader of ‘Radical’, a party and a policy movement that works in favor of human rights. It’s thanks to her party that the European court of Human Rights sentenced the state of Italy to pay a fine in april 2013 because of heavy sentences given to prisoners which worsened jail conditions, beginning with overcrowding. Recently, the Department of Penitentiary Administration (DAP) has updated the toll of the prison’s situation that it has had little change in infectious cases for over a month (since February 29th 2020). Because of this, we know the number of the prisoners in jail has decreased by more than 6 thousand since the beginning of the outbreak. A drop due to the execution of home sentencing, and permitting prisoners who have jobs to stay at home. Of the 105  inmates who tested positive, 11 have been hospitalized while 95 are under quarantine in prisons. So far, two have died. The first was declared dead at the Sant’Orsola hospital in Bologna on April 1st, where he was hospitalized the night before from the city prison in which he served a sentence for his affiliation with the mafia. The second, who died a week later in a hospital in Milan. He was an inmate awaiting trial who served his sentence in Voghera prison. The Ministry doesn’t specify how many detainees were released due to the “Cura Italia” decree  “They would look foolish for having done nothing significant” – urges Rita Bernardini in a comment she posted on Facebook – who is concerned that prisons are likely to become overrun with the disease like elderly homes have. “Will the court EDU stop them?” she queries.

For the record, two deaths from Covid-19 have been declared among prison staff, with six recovered. Overall, there would be 204 positive cases plus 5 prison associated workers. A penitentiary doctor active in Puglia has died. He was 59. “We are all in the same boat”, the Pope warned during a homily in a Roman church to remind everyone that in a pandemic like the one we are experiencing, one man alone cannot save himself. He continued to state that “both prisoners and those who work inside penitentiary institutions deserve proper attention like any other in the fight against the pandemic.”

With the contamination threat from Covid-19 it’s good to maintain a high guard on all levels, Bergamo reminds us. Bergamo is the city most affected by Covid in all of Italy, and the Mayor Giorgo Gori has just tweeted: “Bergamo has 121 thousand inhabitants 795 residents have died, 626 more than the average from the previous 10 years, coming to an increase of 370%. The deaths officially attributed to Covid-19 were 272, but these were only the ones subjected to a swab test. But what about Bergamese detainees? In Bergamo there is a prison which – based on a report by the Antigone association of 2018 –  there is a serious overcrowding problem, with the detention facility at a capacity of 153%. If you permit the writer a comment, this is not a small issue. Not at all.

Written by Alberto Ferrari

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