ROME – Tensions in Italy's overcrowded prisons erupted Monday over new coronavirus containment measures, with riots in at least two dozen lock-ups and the deaths of six inmates who broke into an infirmary and overdosed on methadone.
Italy's national prisoner rights advocate urged wardens to take immediate measures to calm the situation and mitigate the new regulations, which include a suspension or limitation of family visits as a way to prevent transmission of the virus.
“The difficulty of accepting extreme measures is accentuated in places where people don't have any freedom," the advocate said in a statement, urging wardens to provide inmates with greater access to information and phone calls to family members.
The Italian government has issued sweeping measures to try to contain the virus, limiting travel into and out of northern regions, canceling school nationwide, barring gatherings of people and urging Italians to keep a meter (about three feet) apart. With more than 7,300 infected, Italy has more virus cases than any country outside Asia.
Human rights advocates had warned that fears of the virus were hitting inmates particularly hard, given their awareness that their overcrowded conditions made them vulnerable, said Alessio Scandurra, coordinator of adult detention advocacy at the Antigone Association, which lobbies for prisoner rights.
“In prisons in general, there's a lot of anxiety," he said in a telephone interview. “You can't leave, and you're in a place where infectious diseases can spread critically. Obviously inmates know this very well."
When prison administrators limited or suspended family visits, the tensions exploded probably as a panic reaction to limited accurate information about the measures and the virus' spread, he said.
In one of the biggest riots Sunday, prisoners in Modena set mattresses on fire. Six inmates died after they broke into the prison infirmary and overdosed on methadone, which is used to treat opioid dependence, said Donato Capece, secretary general of the penitentiary police union.
On Monday, inmates climbed onto the roof of the San Vittore prison in Milan and held up a painted sheet reading “Indulto,” Italian for pardon. Later, prosecutors also went up on the roof to listen to their grievances.
Milan Prosecutor Alberto Nobili told Il Sole 24 Radio that the inmates “have taken advantage of this particular moment to demand better prison treatment, starting with lessening the numbers” of inmates. He noted San Vittore has 1,200 inmates when it should house only 700.
In Rome, relatives of inmates protested outside the Italian capital's two main prisons after they were told only one person would be allowed in to visit each prisoner.
Anna, who declined to give her name, had brought her nephew to visit her son at the Regina Coeli lock-up and was devastated that they both couldn't go in. In the end, she stayed outside and let her nephew go in “because it's also his birthday, so it is fair that he's the one to go inside."
At Rome's other prison, Rebibbia, relatives of inmates were joined by prisoner advocates who draped a banner across a police barricade reading “Free them all."
Capece accused the government of abandoning the prison system, refusing to provide sufficient measures to prevent the spread of the virus and leaving guards on their own to deal with anxious, irate prisoners.
“The administration is completely absent,” he told The Associated Press. “They have left the penitentiary police in jeopardy.”
He confirmed that protests had taken place in more than two dozen prisons, including in Foggia where some prisoners had escaped. Video posted by Foggia Today online showed prisoners climbing the fence with riot police trying to keep them at bay.
By Monday evening, 40 of at least 50 escaped inmates from the Foggia prison had been recaptured, Italian state TV said.
The European Court of Human Rights has fined Italy over its poor, overcrowded prison conditions. Antigone's Scandurra said as of the end of February, Italy had a prison capacity of 50,931 and a prison population of 61,230. Some prisons are at 180% capacity, while nationwide the average is 120% capacity, he said.
Adding to the anxieties among prisoners is uncertainty about the progress of their cases as Italy’s overburdened court system has ground to a near halt because of virus containment measures. Even though cases where defendants were jailed were exempted from postponed hearings, prisoners probably assume they too will endure even longer delays in the justice system, Scandurra said.
AP video journalist Gianfranco Stara contributed to this report.