With news that four prisoners in Italy tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, bolder steps to protect the health of detainees and guards and alleviate overcrowding in its penitentiary system are all the more urgent.
On March 16, the government adopted a decree that, among other measures, will allow for early supervised release of prisoners with less than 18 months left to serve on their sentence. While an important measure, it doesn’t go far enough.
Patrizio Gonnella, head of Antigone, Italy’s leading prisoner rights organization, estimates the measure could lead to the release of at most 3,000 detainees. Yet Italy’s penitentiary system is, by the most conservative estimate, 120 percent over capacity, holding 61,230 prisoners with only 50,931 available beds.
In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Italy to take steps to alleviate overcrowding, including minimizing pretrial detention and greater recourse of alternatives to deprivation of liberty in sentencing.
There were riots in almost 50 prisons throughout Italy in early March linked to anxiety about COVID-19 and anger over restrictive measures imposed by prison authorities. The unrest led to 13 deaths among detainees and 59 injured guards. The prisoner deaths, which authorities attribute to overdoses after detainees raided prison pharmacies, are under investigation.
The outbreak is likely to increase isolation for prisoners. On March 8, as it was imposing restrictions on freedom of movement on the general population in northern Italy (later extended to the entire country), the Italian government ordered the suspension of outside visits, including by lawyers and family members, and limited the possibility for detainees to get probation and special permits to leave facilities. Defender of the Rights of Detained Persons Mauro Palma has stressed that prison authorities should guarantee to all detainees access to video calls as a substitute for visits.
In addition to taking steps to prevent or limit the outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons – like monitoring the temperature of everyone who enters and ensuring staff and detainees have masks and gloves and medical care for those who fall ill – authorities should consider further measures to reduce the overall prison population. This could include releasing those in pretrial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses as well as older prisoners and prisoners with underlying health conditions who do not pose a risk to the general public. Prisoners’ health deserves protection.