Six inmates die as coronavirus panic spreads across Italian prisons

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Italian authorities were  on Monday struggling to restore order in prisons up and down the country after coronavirus related riots led to six inmates’ deaths and dozens of escapes.

Inmates are concerned about contagion risks within prisons and are angry at a recent government decision to restrict outside visits as part of a national outbreak containment strategy.

The six dead are inmates from Modena Prison where protests broke out on Sunday.
Modena is one of the provinces of Northern Italy which is under lockdown.

Three inmates died inside the institution, while another three passed away after being transferred to other jails, the head of the prison service Francesco Basentini told RAI public television.

RAI said four other prisoners are in a critical state in hospital, while three prison guards and seven prison infirmary staff were slightly injured.

According to Uilpa, a prison police union, the inmates died of methadone overdose after raiding the prison’s infirmary, but this had yet to be confirmed by autopsies.

Another serious situation was reported in Foggia, in the South-East, where dozens of prisoners managed to escape, according to prison police union representatives.

“The situation is catastrophic. In Foggia, 50 inmates have escaped,’’ Aldo Di Giacomo of the Spp trade union told the Adnkronos news agency.

Quoting union sources, Adnkronos reported later that about 20 remained at large, while the others were caught by police or turned themselves in.

Justice Minister Alfredo Bonafede was summoned by the Senate to give explanations about the situation. He is scheduled to brief the chamber at 5 pm (1600 GMT) on Wednesday.

The first prison riots took place on Saturday in Salerno, and have since spread nationwide. According to the Spp union, protests have taken place in  27 prisons.

In central Milan, inmates climbed on the roof of the San Vittore Prison and hang banners calling for freedom and amnesty while anti-riot police surrounded the building.

Two prison guards were briefly taken hostage by inmates in Pavia, near Milan, on Sunday, and other violent protests, sometimes leading to fires, were reported in Rome, Naples, Turin, Prato and elsewhere.

The government decree that sparked prisoners’ riots, approved on the weekend, ordered the suspension of outside visits, except for exceptional cases.

It made provisions for prisoners to be allowed to talk to friends and relatives via phone or video link, but also called for restrictions in permits allowing some convicts to leave prison during the day.

Susanna Marietti from Antigone, a prisoners’ rights association, told dpa that sports and cultural activities inside prisons were also suspended.

Prisoners were not properly informed, she said, fuelling panic.

“If people outside [prisons] are scared [about the coronavirus], imagine what it’s like inside,’’ she said.

Italy is facing the worst outbreak of the virus in Europe. On Sunday, the country reported 7,375 coronavirus cases, including 366 fatalities.

On Facebook, Antigone President, Patrizio Gonnella, called on inmates to stop rioting, and urged authorities to allow more convicts to serve their sentences under house arrest, rather than in jail.

On the other hand, far-right opposition leader, Matteo Salvini, called for an  iron-fist response and spoke against any concession towards inmates, including switches from custody to house arrest.

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