Tensions in Italy’s overcrowded prisons erupted over new coronavirus containment measures, with riots in at least two dozen units and the deaths of six inmates who broke into an infirmary and overdosed on methadone.
The 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, cancelling school nationwide, barring gatherings of people and urging Italians to keep a metre 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, co-ordinator of adult detention advocacy at the Antigone Association, which lobbies for prisoner rights.
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 on 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 on to the roof of 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 said 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 capital’s two main prisons after they were told only one person would be allowed in to visit each prisoner.
Mr 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 angry prisoners.
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.