In most parts of the world, it is taken for granted that who ever is convicted of a serious crime will be sent to prison. In some countries-including the United States-where capital punishment has not yet been abolished, a small but significant number of people are sentenced to death for what are considered especially grave crimes. Many people are familiar with the campaign to abolish the death penalty. In fact, it has already been abolished in most countries. Even the staunchest advocates of capital punishment acknowledge the fact that the death penalty faces serious challenges. Few people find life without the death penalty difficult to imagine.
In Italy at the beginning of March as many as 49 Institutes were involved in riots and in some situations, the protest has taken on a dramatic scale that had not been seen in our country for decades: in addition to the dozens and dozens of injured prisoners and prison police officers, the protests caused 14 deaths among inmates in Modena, Alessandria, Rieti and Bologna. These deaths, according to the information given to the National Guarantor of the Rights of Persons detained or deprived of their liberty, were all due to abuse of methadone or other drugs found by the infirmaries stormed during the riots. "We need autopsies and toxicological tests to establish what really happened," says Michele Miravalle, national coordinator of the Observatory on prison conditions in Antigone, an association for rights and guarantees in the criminal system. "This is the biggest collective death in the last thirty years, on which we must immediately clarify. We do not take anything for granted, considering that if you are a drug addict, you know that with the abuse of those drugs you risk your life".
The whole story has caught the attention of mainstream information channels, which have immediately pledged to liquidate the protest, depending on the case, as an unjustified revolt, as a way for prisoners to get methadone from the infirmaries or as a
Organised crime riot with the most sinister aims.
But anyone who knows or works in jail could imagine the outbreak and degeneration, also in the form of the violence with which the prison is often impregnated, of such a situation; he knows that the issue is more serious and complex and above all, he knows that the risk of increasing dehumanization in an already dehumanizing institution of his own is higher than ever in an emergency condition. As the relatives of the prisoners in Rieti point out, in asking to shed light on the deaths and conditions inside the prison: "How are the riots calmed? By dealing with the prisoners, or by repeated beatings. This is nothing new. In these very difficult days, in which the commitment of each of us is all aimed at protecting the community, there are those who have no protection".
THE REAL PROBLEM
It is not difficult to imagine why an epidemic is a particularly alarming circumstance for prisons. The well-known problem of overcrowding in prisons, for which Italy was condemned in 2013 by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, makes them sadly fertile places for the spread of a virus. With cells of just a few square metres housing 3, 4 or 5 prisoners each, with only one bathroom, the social distancing so proclaimed as indispensable for those who are free is not an option. In a prison, many contacts between inmates and staff are not avoidable, and the lack of protective equipment, detected by most professional categories who have had to deal directly with the contagion, has also involved prison operators and of course prisoners.
In Italy, there were 53,139 prison inmates in prisons on 4 May, for about 47,000 places actually available. Overcrowding remains but has decreased drastically since the end of February when there were 61,230 inmates in prison. This was a combined result: to a decrease in admissions, due to the lower number of crimes committed during the lockdown, there has been greater use of alternative measures to prison in the sentences issued by judges in the last two months.
ABOLISHING PRISON IS AN OBLIGATION
Those with political and governmental responsibilities can decide that the situation in prisons should remain as it is. They can explain to the country that it is right, or at least not so serious, that our system seizes the lives of prisoners by entrusting them to a system of systematic degradation. It can explain that the State does well, or at least does nothing wrong if it condemns prisoners not only to the deprivation of liberty but to despair, torture, illness, rape, suicide. Because that is what it is all about: the known and documented fact that prisoners are subjected to the punishment of that overwhelming and violent regime.