Prison riots hit Italy amid virus; 6 die in overdose

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Inmates stage a protest against new rules to cope with coronavirus emergency, atop the roof of the San Vittore prison in Milan, Italy, Monday, March 9, 2020. Italy took a page from China's playbook Sunday, attempting to lock down 16 million people more than a quarter of its population for nearly a month to halt the relentless march of the new coronavirus across Europe. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

ROME – Tensions in Italy's overcrowded prisons erupted Monday over new coronavirus containment measures, with riots in at least two dozen lock-ups and the deaths of six inmates who broke into an infirmary and overdosed on methadone.

Italy's national prisoner rights advocate urged wardens to take immediate measures to calm the situation and mitigate the new regulations, which include a suspension or limitation of family visits as a way to prevent transmission of the virus.

“The difficulty of accepting extreme measures is accentuated in places where people don't have any freedom," the advocate said in a statement, urging wardens to provide inmates with greater access to information and phone calls to family members.

The Italian government has issued sweeping measures to try to contain the virus, limiting travel into and out of northern regions, canceling school nationwide, barring gatherings of people and urging Italians to keep a meter (about three feet) apart. With more than 7,300 infected, Italy has more virus cases than any country outside Asia.

Human rights advocates had warned that fears of the virus were hitting inmates particularly hard, given their awareness that their overcrowded conditions made them vulnerable, said Alessio Scandurra, coordinator of adult detention advocacy at the Antigone Association, which lobbies for prisoner rights.

“In prisons in general, there's a lot of anxiety," he said in a telephone interview. “You can't leave, and you're in a place where infectious diseases can spread critically. Obviously inmates know this very well."

When prison administrators limited or suspended family visits, the tensions exploded probably as a panic reaction to limited accurate information about the measures and the virus' spread, he said.

In one of the biggest riots Sunday, prisoners in Modena set mattresses on fire. Six inmates died after they broke into the prison infirmary and overdosed on methadone, which is used to treat opioid dependence, said Donato Capece, secretary general of the penitentiary police union.