Italy’s premier visits prison where officers beat inmates

ROME — Italy’s premier and justice minister promised reforms Wednesday after they visited a prison where dozens of officers have been put under investigation for allegedly beating, kicking and punching prisoners during unrest provoked by the coronavirus pandemic.

Surveillance video of the officers assaulting inmates, including one in a wheelchair who was hit on the back with a baton, was published online last month by Domani, an Italian newspaper.

Premier Mario Draghi said after touring the Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison, in southern Italy near Caserta, “What we have seen in the last days has deeply shaken the consciences of Italians.”

He said that beyond individual responsibility, the episode had revealed the “collective responsibility” of a prison system in need of reform.

Justice Minister Marta Cartabia said she and Draghi came to see the situation first-hand.

“Prison is a place of sorrow, suffering, pain, but it must never be a place of violence and humiliation,” Cartabia said.

The video published by Domani shows prisoners getting beaten while curled up on the floor or as they walked through what practically amounted to a gauntlet of officers while trying to protect their heads with their hands.

The beatings occurred on April 6, 2020, apparently in reprisal for a prison protest early in the pandemic. In March 2020, prisoners in several Italian facilities violently protested against overcrowding, temporary limits on visitors and a lack of protective supplies like face masks. At one northern prison, mattresses were set on fire.

“It’s up to us to transform the reaction to those very grave deeds which happened here into an authentic occasion to turn a page in the world of prisons,” the justice minister said in a speech carried by state TV.

Cartabia said Italy would use some of its European Union pandemic-recovery funds to build eight new prison pavilions, including one at Santa Maria Capua Vetere, which has a capacity of 809 inmates but now holds 905.

Overcrowding has been a perennial problem in Italy’s prison system.

Noted Draghi: “Italy has been condemned two times by the European Court of Human Rights for prison overcrowding. There are thousands more inmates in respect to beds available.”

Overcrowding, he said, “hinders the path toward repentance, hinders reinsertion in society, aims indicated several times by the Constitutional Court” of Italy.

Before Draghi tapped Cartabia as his justice minister earlier this year, she served as president of the Constitutional Court.

Cartabia said beyond adding more beds to reduce prison overcrowding, improvements in plumbing and heating were needed.

“Living in a degraded environment cannot help efforts at socialization,” she said.