by Alessandra Arpaia
Content warning: violence, abuse, police brutality
Santa Maria Capua Vetere is a small town in the southern Italian region of Campania. A few weeks ago, prison surveillance videos emerged showing guards brutally attacking prisoners after inmate protests took place in April 2020. The footage is proof not only of the abuse of power that takes place in silence in Italian prisons every day, but it also highlights the urgent need for Italy to reevaluate its penal system. Despite being sparked by demands for better Covid protection and testing, last Spring’s protests were a culmination of longstanding issues which have characterised the Italian judicial and penal system for too long; from lack of basic hygiene standards to a general slowness in judicial processes – not to mention the extreme levels of violence perpetrated by prison guards.
In March 2020, Covid cases in Italy began rising – drastically. The entire country was in a state of panic, especially after the first national lockdown was put in place on March 10th. Some may remember the video of the old Italian man crying “the pasta shelves are empty!” after people all over the country started scouring supermarket aisles. Over the same days, numerous protests took place in prisons all over the country, after a government decree announced the suspension of visits from relatives due to the new anti-Covid measures. Many feared not being able to see their loved ones again.
Aside from visitation rights, inmates were also demanding better safety measures be put in place. Prison police were equipped with face masks and single-use gloves to protect themselves, however inmates were left in cramped cells with poor hygiene and no safety equipment. This outrageously poor level of care was compounded by the fact that Italian prisons are notoriously overcrowded – the most overcrowded in Europe in fact, with 120 inmates for every 100 beds.
For this reason, on April 5th 2020 inmates in the Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison organised a protest after the first inmates began positive for Covid-19. The protest initiated a severe reaction from the police officers, who organised a punitive mission against the inmates. The “mission” was organised on a WhatsApp group chat, where prison police officers compared the inmates to ‘cannon fodder’, saying they “would slaughter [the inmates] like meat”, and that they had to “tame the cattle”.
One the one hand, Minister of Justice Marta Cartabia defined these acts of violence as an “Indiscriminate and unjustified use of all sorts of physical and moral violence against the inmates”. Furthermore, the beatings were also planned and executed in ways which would prevent inmates from recognising the aggressors, as officers’ faces were covered by helmets and face masks. On the other hand, far-right leaders such as Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini have (unsurprisingly) sided with the oppressors, and expressed solidarity with the 117 officers who are now under investigation with charges of torture, injury, abuse, forgery, calumny and fraud. The day after the video was made public, sources claimed that a “blackout” prevented inmates from watching television, and newspapers were not distributed.
From the videos, it is clear that the beatings were perpetrated with the sole purpose of dehumanising the inmates. Some were slapped and hit with a truncheon on the back of the legs. Some, already on their knees, were kicked in their legs, others were dragged across the floor. One of the videos shows inmates on the floor on their knees with their heads facing the wall; one inmate’s back is bleeding, yet the video shows a police officer continuing to beat him violently. The violence was perpetrated in front of the cameras, and no attempt was made to hide from them. This strongly suggests that the police officers were not scared to be seen, that they knew they were not going to receive any repercussions, and that they were consciously acting with impunity.
These episodes of violence are not isolated cases in Italian prisons. They are the product of a toxic culture in which police officers can all too often get away with violence and murder because they are protected by state institutions. Officers who have committed such crimes are still in service, or worse, have in some cases even been promoted. Take the case of Pietro Troiani and Salvatore Gava, for example: two officers who were promoted despite their involvement in the violent repression of the Geneva G8 protests in 2001. 93 people were arbitrarily arrested during a raid in the protests and subjected to gratuitous violence and abuse from these police officers; one protestor was even shot and killed by police on the street.
There is a dangerous assumption in Italian culture that an inmate is somewhat less of a human being, and that a police officer is always in the right. This is especially clear when considering how some newspapers have defined those who have spoken against police abuse as “anarchists”, or played down the protests by claiming that they were planned by organised crime as a deliberate way to create chaos.
The case of Stefano Cucchi is one which has become the symbol of police brutality in Italy. Arrested for possession charges on October 15th 2009, Stefano was found dead seven days after his arrest at 6:15 am on October 22nd; lying lifeless in his hospital bed. Despite the obvious bruises on his body, while Stefano was still alive he was coerced by the police into remaining silent. After his death, police then claimed that Stefano had died of epilepsy and that the bruises were “not related to his death”.
Since then, his sister Ilaria has fought to bring him justice as well as the countless victims who did not make the news. After nine years of judicial process, on October 11th 2018, one of the three indicted officers finally confessed by accusing his two colleagues and accusing his superiors of forcing him to stay silent. Unlike the many others who died at the hands of the police, Stefano was from a middle-class family. Unlike many others, his family had the means to pursue a lengthy legal action that lasted for nine years. This is a rare case of justice in a system fraught with systemic violence and impunity for its perpetrators – justice isn’t usually served.
(For anyone interested, Netflix UK also has available a great film on the subject, called On My Skin: The Last Seven Days of Stefano Cucchi.)
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