Quarantine vs. overcrowding – what’s going on in Italian prisons

“C’hanno insegnato la meraviglia
Verso la gente che ruba il pane
Ora sappiamo che è un delitto
Il non rubare quando si ha fame –
Di respirare la stessa aria
Dei secondini non ci va
E abbiam deciso di imprigionarli
Durante l’ora di libertà
Venite adesso alla prigione
State a sentire sulla porta
La nostra ultima canzone
Che vi ripete un’altra volta
Per quanto voi vi crediate assolti
Siete per sempre coinvolti.”

“Breathing the same air
prison guards breathe, we don’t like it.
So we put them in prison
during the out-of-cell time.
Come to the prison, now,
stand at the door and listen to
our latest song
that tells you you one more time:
“No matter if you feel you have been absolved
you were implicated, and you always will be.
No matter if you feel you have been absolved
you were implicated, and you always will be.”

Fabrizio De Andrè, Nella mia ora di libertà


Riots exploded in about 30 Italian prisons 2 weeks ago in the biggest uprising since the 70s. It ended with 14 deaths, a number of injured, and sudden transfers for many and a variety of other repercussions for others, including 16 who managed to escape.

The scenario is a whole country locked down, with the majority of the population forced into self isolation and advised to change their lifestyle because “there is no time”, quoting Italian prime minister Conte.

But what about prisoners?

There are more than 67, 000 detainees in Italian jails. The capacity of the system is 50, 000 people. It is an euphemism to say they are overcrowded. In some cells sleep up to 10 people, in beds standing under one metre of distance from each other. In others people sleep on the floor.

Basic hygiene standards are not met. Lack of medicines, lack of space, lack of opportunities are ordinary issues. Some Italian prisons look like places where “people are thrown into and let to rot” says the wife of a detainee in Poggio Reale, Naples. The woman, interviewed after the riots, speaks about unacceptable conditions and asks rhetorically “where is the government now?”.

Mainstream newspapers wrote about people dying from overdoses and suicides, whereas relatives, friends, activists, professionals and whoever made an effort to understand what really happened there tell a different version of the story. Their version speaks of violence, with officers reportedly beating people, detainees stripped naked and left to bleed, covered in bruises with no further care or attention.

The girlfriend of a man serving time in Modena says he was left with no clothes and hit all over his body, “they removed his shoes too”, “bruised and with possible fractured fingers”, “unsure about eventual internal bleeding as wasn’t provided with medical assistance”. The man was then put on the back of a van, moved to Porto Azzurro, on the island of Elba, far from home.

Nicoletta Dosio, a 73 years old No Tav activist who is spending a sentence in Le Vallette, Torino, wrote a letter dated March 15th. She highlights unsafe conditions, where neither detainees or officers have adequate sanitary precautions. She laments that the suspension of visits and of specific concessions like day release are the only preventive measures put in place. They have only made the the situation worse: “l’ordinario rigore non muta, anzi peggiora in un clima di preoccupante irrazionalità: ci sentiamo più che mai espropriati di noi stessi ed in balia di chi “ci controlla” , “the usual severity does not change and in fact it gets worse, this atmosphere of irrationality is alarming: now more than ever we feel our integrity taken away from us and left at the mercy of those who control us”. The present moment as described sounds very tense, and alienating from the rest of the world.

These problems aren’t new, they usually just go unnoticed for periods of time, get classified as not the priority, then postponed until further notice by authorities. When the situation gets really bad, it might happen that the state grants an amnesty, or mesures called “svuota carceri”, literally “to empty prisons”. The system stays the same and the benefit is temporary.
The constant underlying feelings of injustice and despair escalated fast, with the news of the spreading of a virus that is killing people. This is all too scary, especially when you are already locked up and there is no way you can follow guidelines that apply to everyone else, and you are not even allowed to speak to your loved ones out there.


Imagine how easily a disease could spread in that environment and with what consequences. If the healthcare system is already inadequate to support citizens outside of prison, how would it be able to take care of those inside? At this point, full of rage and fear, the only way to be heard is to riot.

Demands are quite simple and are as old as the problem itself.

Alternative measures to prison will reduce overcrowding:

for those convicted of minor crimes;

for those with severe health issues;

for the elderly;

for those that have a short time left to serve.


Safer living conditions for those who will remain inside could be achievable if the population decreased.


The complexity of the situation has been brought to light by the explosion of the epidemic, but it was already there. And it shows a penal system that is broken and incompetent, affecting the most vulnerable before all.

Something is moving after the riots and administrations seem to have started meeting some of the requests of home detention, but it’s not enough. It is not the same everywhere, and it cannot apply to everyone. For example: One criteria is to have a stable address. We know that prisons are full of people with no fixed abode and coming from conditions of extreme poverty – the law is not in their favour once again.

We have to hope that the negotiations carry on – conversation has to stay open and must keep exposing the faults of a system that forces further damage over very vulnerable parts of the population.

to listen to interviews about the riots: http://www.ondarossa.info/newstrasmissioni/2020/03/coronavirus-sulle-lotte-corso-nelle

for a map with updates from each institution:

http://www.antigone.it/news/antigone-news/3279-coronavirus-la-mappatura-di-antigone-dei-provvedimenti-assunti-nelle-carceri

for a deeper analysis of the state of emergency in relation to prisons:

info about Nicoletta Dosio and No Tav movement can be found on her FB page:

https://www.facebook.com/NicolettaDosioEU/

Victoria C