Crisis in Italian prisons

On 3 May the Italian press agency ANSA reported that a magistrate in Sassari, Sardinia, had issued 82 preventive custody orders, involving 79 prison guards and 3 prison service (polizia penitenziaria) officials. Twenty-one officers were remanded in custody - including the regional superintendent of prisons, Giuseppe Della Vecchia, the director of Sassari jail, Maria Cristina Di Marzio, and its chief prison guard, Andrea Tomassi - with 61 guards placed under house arrest. Investigations began after complaints by prisoners and their families concerning the alleged beating of around 20 inmates in Sassari's San Sebastiano jail on 3 April during a transfer. The accusations against the guards and officials include violence against the person, inflicting actual bodily harm and of abuse of public office.

The Sassari investigation

The Italian Ministry of Justice initially reacted to complaints by sending an investigator to the jail, to interview officers and inmates, and to order that medical examinations be carried out. The investigation, conducted by the Sassari public prosecutions office, was then extended to all the island's prisons following allegations that officers drafted in from several Sardinian jails had taken part in the beatings. It emerged that the victims of the alleged beatings had been identified as the "ringleaders" of a prison revolt on 28 March. The following week they were rounded up for a transfer which was ordered by Di Marzio. They were allegedly kicked in the face, stomach and lower body, while they were naked and with their hands tied behind their back. Il Manifesto reported that visits were not allowed after the beatings, and it was only after inmates covertly passed notes to their families during court hearings that formal complaints were made.

One of the prisoners, Angelo L., told Corriere della Sera that prison guards in Sassari had sympathised with the March demonstration to highlight the poor conditions in San Sebastiano. This, he claims, explains why the prison guards responsible for the beatings were not from Sassari, but were brought in from other Sardinian jails. Furthermore, on the same day as the attack, Andrea Tomassi replaced the chief prison guard who was reportedly seen as being too lenient and took "sick leave". The prosecution has claimed that "due to the method and complexity of the operation, it appears evident that [it] must have required a relatively long development and gestation period".

Prison guards in protest

In Sardinia, Rome and Milan members of the prison service demonstrated in support of those arrested, criticising the poor conditions under which prison guards operate. Sappe, the prison service union, threatened to take industrial action, including sit-in protests, increased controls on inmates at night, and working to rule on internal guidelines with regard to open air activities, visits and showers, to highlight staff shortages.

The 82 prison staff members were released on 13 May on the order of the magistrate for preliminary investigations - 17 remain suspended from service. News of the releases led to a protest by inmates in the female section of Rebbibbia jail in Rome.

"Emergency" in Italian prisons?

Further instances of abuse of inmates have arisen in the wake of the Sassari scandal, leading to talk of a "prisons emergency". An inquiry was ordered into alleged abuse (including racism) against migrant inmates in the Ferrante Aporti young offenders institute in Turin. The abuse allegedly led a North African youth to set himself alight. On 10 May, the trial into an alleged violent beating suffered by a Romanian prisoner, Sulejman Halepi, at the hands of prison guards resumed in Orvieto. Il Manifesto reported that an inmate who was due to testify on his behalf escaped from Orvieto jail shortly before the trial. The death of Alessandro Chiovini on May 25 in Regina Coeli prison in Rome led to accusations by his family that he had been beaten to death. His family claimed that when his father visited him, he said that he had been beaten, was heavily marked and very disorientated. The resulting inquiry, however, came to the conclusion that Chiovini had died following an allergic reaction to medication he was given in jail, as part of a drugs detoxification programme. Since the beginning of 1999, 13 people have died in Rome's two jails, Rebbibbia and Regina Coeli.

Figures highlight problems

Italian jails are notoriously overcrowded, (see Statewatch vol.10, no.2) and figures published by Gruppo Abele, an association working in the field of social deprivation, in its Social Yearbook 1999 (Annuario Sociale 2000, available from www.gruppoabele.it), show that in Italian prisons during 1999 there were:

53 suicides,

920 suicide attempts,

83 deaths,

2 murders,

1,768 woundings,

6,536 instances of self-harm,

42 fires, and

5,522 hunger strikes.

Director of prisons calls for reform

Giancarlo Caselli, head of the Dipartimento Amministrativo Penitenziario (Dap, Penitentiary Administration Department), defended his 43,000-strong department, saying its members carry out an important job in "difficult conditions". In an interview with Il Manifesto, he stated that "detainees" rights "must be guaranteed without reservations", that judicial authorities should act decisively if laws are violated, and that events in Sassari were "specific and limited" rather than general practice. He also called for a radical change in custodial sentencing:

I wonder if strict and fully enforced [custodial sentences] shouldn't just be reserved for particularly dangerous cases. Whereas for all other cases other solutions which are more effective in terms of rehabilitation should be alternative to or combined with prison.

He spoke of the present jail system as a "social rubbish dump" (discarica sociale), inhabited by "marginalised and poor people", which "hardly rehabilitates anyone".

New legislation introduced

On May 19, a decree was passed to introduce measures costing around £65 million over three years to improve conditions in jails. It provides for the recruitment of 700 officers and 1,100 social service professionals including teachers, social workers and psychologists to address the lack of prison staff and rehabilitation programmes. The decree introduces a hierarchical management regime in the prison service and includes provisions for every jail to have its own director. At present, directors often run more than one jail. The measures were welcomed by Justice Minister Piero Fassino as an important step forward towards an overdue reorganisation of the prison service.

Sources: ANSA 3.5.00, Avvenimenti 21.5.00, Il Manifesto 4.5, 10.5, 13.5.00, Corriere della Sera 5.5.00, 14.5, 15.5.00, La Repubblica 13.3, 9.5, 20.5, 30.5, 1.6.00.

Source: Statewatch News online