Luisa Ravagnani – Prisoners Guarantor – Brescia, Italy. Researcher in Criminology – University of Brescia. Italy, Project Manager – Italian Prisoners Abroad
Luisa Ravagnani is a member of the EuroPris/CEP Foreign Nationals in Prison & Probation Expert Group and the founder of the group Italian Prisoners Abroad, who support Italian prisoners abroad and on their return. Luisa was significantly involved in the early days of the impact of COVID-19 in prisons in Northern Italy and then elsewhere. In this article, Luisa provides an overview of these early, fraught days and how and why she established with others, the “Freedom Square Project”. In the first days of March 2020, after the suspension of any form of contact visits to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection among the prisoners, violent riots and protests overturned the Italian prison system. Fifty facilities were involved and large areas of the prisons were devastated, 14 prisoners died and 59 prison police officers wounded. Because of this devastation, it was necessary to proceed with the transfer of numerous inmates from prison to prison and this forced movement created many problems for the identification of adequate spaces for their isolation in the new place of detention, increasing the risk of contagion among the general prison population.
In the first days of March 2020, after the suspension of any form of contact visits to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection among the prisoners, violent riots and protests overturned the Italian prison system. Fifty facilities were involved and large areas of the prisons were devastated, 14 prisoners died and 59 prison police officers wounded. Because of this devastation, it was necessary to proceed with the transfer of numerous inmates from prison to prison and this forced movement created many problems for the identification of adequate spaces for their isolation in the new place of detention, increasing the risk of contagion among the general prison population.
As easily understandable, the outbreak of violence was not exclusively attributable to the total closure of the prisons, which resulted in the complete isolation of prisoners from the external society. The explosion of aggressiveness belonged to the climate of great anxiety and fear generated by the awareness of not being able to follow the Covid-19 preventive measures that, in those days, newspaper and television repeated continuously: adequate social distancing and use of personal protective equipment.
In those hectic days, however, not all the prisoners decide to get involved in violence to make their voices heard outside. Although the mentioned events had been very serious, the total number of prisoners that took part in the riots was minimal.
For example, the prisoners of Brescia adopted different strategies: they preferred to pursue their own requests through the dialogue, the confrontation and the collaboration with the prison staff. They prepared a press release, drawn up in collaboration with the local Guarantor, to express their closeness to the families of prisoners who lost their lives in the riots and to ask more attention to their health during the pandemic. This was the first step of the collaboration with the prison administration. A delegation of prisoners started an important mediation work with the remaining prison population, with the purpose to inform and reassure prisoners about the efforts of the prison staff and the judiciary for protecting their right to health, also through the implementation of the new measures provided by law.
In this regards, the immediate acceleration of the procedure for the application of alternative sanctions (due to a new and specific organizational strategy that involved the prison and the Surveillance Court in synergy with the local NGOs that managed housing project) confirmed what the delegation of prisoners had explained to the general population.
However, after the end of the riots and violence in prison, the risks of facing a possible contagion in a situation of serious overcrowding remained. The fact that detention facilities were – and still are – places of high risk for Covid-19 and that the health of inmates needed specific attention in such a delicate moment were clearly and internationally reiterated.
Among others, between March and May 2020 the World Health Organization, the Prison Reform International, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, the UN Sub-committee for the Prevention of the Torture and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published international guidelines and recommendations on the theme. In addition, the Italian judicial system intervened with numerous new provisions such as:
1) The law decree n. 11/2020 that determined a substantial closure of the prison to prevent a possible spread of the contagion coming from the outside (the same law introduced the distance visiting system through WhatsApp, skype or other forms of a video call).
2) The art. 123 and 124 of the Law Decree n. 178/2020, which tried to reverse the flow of prisoners by favouring deflationary measures. Specifically, the two articles referred to the possibility of applying home detention for residual sentences of less than 18 months, simplifying the procedure of access and speeding up its effectiveness but excluding prisoners who were serving a sentence for the most serious crimes and those that took part in the riots. Anyway, the concurrent introduction of the electronic bracelet for the application of home detention from six to eighteen months complicated the real applicability of this measure. The same articles provided for additional 75-days licenses for people serving semi-liberty (or similar) measures, in order to keep them away from prison while waiting to evaluate the evolution of the pandemic.
Regarding the insufficient impact of the mentioned measures for an adequate managing of the covid-19 emergency, the Guarantor of Brescia took a clear position through a joint press release written in collaboration with the Criminal Bar Association of Brescia and a letter to the Ministry of Justice, also signed by the territorial stakeholders that work in the prison field.
3) The document of the Attorney General of the Court of Cassation, concerning some important positions to reduce the prison presence during the Coronavirus emergency,that focused on precautionary measures and the enforcement of the new prison sentences. The Attorney General, in his document, asked to take into consideration, among the other elements, the impact of Coronavirus emergency while deciding on the applicability of all the available pre-trial measures, in order to use prison only when strictly necessary. Moreover, to reduce the number of detainees in a short time he called for massive recourse to the provisional application of alternative measures. In an important part of his message, he also suggested the application of probation even in the cases in which the person can count only on a home but not on a job (second element required by law for the enforcement of probation itself).
As a corollary to these instruments, the DAP – Department of Penitentiary Administration issues numerous circulars containing guidelines for the prison facilities on the prevention of contagion and the management of the emergency.
Prisoners had to wait until May 2020 to start again with the contact visits (with the required restrictions and precautions). This was of course the first important signal of a return to a form of normality, albeit different from what it was before the covid-19 pandemic.
However, the hope is that the technological skills acquired by the prison system in the recent months would not be lost. The use of video calls through skype and WhatsApp system could – in fact – represent a significant resource – for example for the maintenance of school pathways and for the interactions with the world of volunteering – at least until a reopening of prisons will allow contacts in person again. Moreover, the possibility to use internet inside the prison would make it easier experiencing new forms of intramural re-educational treatment.
In the period in which the special measures were applied (March-June 2020) 159 prisoners were infected by covid-19, two of them died and 11 needed hospital care. The most part of the infections happened in a few facilities in the North of the Country, where the pandemic was more serious. Regarding the prison staff, 215 police officers were infected and two died for Covisd-19 (15 May, 2020, www.garantenazionaleprivatiliberta.it).
After an almost quiet summer, the resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe and in Italy, in the last two months, offered the scenario for a new application of special measure to reduce the prison population and to protect the health of prisoners. The new measures, approved in the Law Decree n. 137 of the 28th October 2020, are almost identical to the ones applied in March 2020 and gives the possibility to reduce the prison population through the application of home detention in case of sentences of a maximum of eighteen months.
At the 31st October 2020, the number of prisoners in Italy was 54.868 (the official capacity of the prison system is of 50.553 people) (www.giustizia.it)
In March 2020, during the most disastrous days of the pandemic, the volunteers that were used to visit prisoners every week could not be in touch with them and, on the other hand, the outside society started to feel restricted as prisoners. It was in this scenario that the Associazione Carcere e Territorio, presented the “Freedom Square project”. The idea was to put in touch prisoners with the outside society to waken their sense of isolation, to share thoughts, emotions, fears and hopes about the covid-19 pandemic and the right of liberty in a larger sense.
Thanks to the collaboration with the prison staff, people from the outside had the chance to meet prisoners in a virtual space and try to overturn common prejudices about them, while sharing letters, pictures and songs in the language they preferred. Inside the prison was prepared a physical space in which all the documents coming from the outside were at disposal of each prisoner, in any moment.
Prisoners, from their side, answered to the outside communities through email sent by the prison staff to the local Guarantor that worked as a mediator in the communication process.
A quite large number of people participated in the Freedom Square project by sending contributions to the prisoners so that the brainchild of a particular situation (that was meant to last only three months) has remained active until today. The hope is that more and more people (even from abroad) could send a contribution to the prisoners in order to encourage a constructive dialogue between prison and society. If the negative consequences of Covid-19 pandemic could be at least useful to reduce prejudice and to reinforce a feeling of solidarity among human being, independently from their social status or criminal records, everyone ‘s suffering will acquire a little more meaning.