Italian prisons under fire as video footage shows guards beating inmates

By Angela Giuffrida

Italy’s justice minister, Marta Cartabia, has ordered a report into conditions in the country’s prisons after the release of video footage showing guards brutally beating inmates at a jail near Naples who had demanded better coronavirus protections.

The shocking scenes of prisoners being kicked, slapped and beaten with truncheons at Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison in Caserta were caught by surveillance cameras on 6 April 2020, the day after a riot erupted in the prison as inmates demanded face masks and Covid-19 tests in reaction to an outbreak of the virus. The footage was published this week by the newspaper Domani.

“Those images brought a lump to my throat,” Cartabia told La Repubblica. “As well as the thought of a trampled constitution.”

Fifty-two prison guards have since been arrested. The guards, who have also been suspended by the justice ministry, face charges of aggravated torture, aggravated ill-treatment and causing multiple injuries.

A judge in the preliminary investigation, who described the violence as a “horrible massacre”, said the inmates were allegedly made to strip, kneel and be beaten by guards who wore helmets to conceal their identity, Ansa news agency reported.

In the captured surveillance footage, dozens of prison officers can be seen whacking inmates with truncheons, pulling their hair and kneeing them in the stomach. In other scenes, prisoners are beaten as they walk through the corridor or down a stairwell.

The case has caused political divisions in Italy, with Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League and part of the ruling coalition, visiting the prison on Thursday “to bring some solidarity from the League to all prison officers”.

Enrico Letta, the leader of the centre-left Democratic party and also part of the coalition, said the violent scenes were “intolerable”. “They are all the more serious because they are ascribed to those who ought to serve the state with loyalty and honour.”

Salvatore, one of the prisoners allegedly beaten and now completing his sentence under house arrest, told La Repubblica: “In the video, I’m the hooded one, the one taking blows to the head, back and legs. Even though I’m out of the prison, I haven’t slept for weeks.”

The prison scenes recalled the case of Stefano Cucchi, who died after being beaten while in custody in a Rome prison in 2009. Two police officers were found guilty of his murder in 2019. Cucchi was placed in custody after being found in possession of hashish and cocaine in a park in Rome. He weighed 37kg at the time of his death, while photos showed his bruised face.

His sister, Ilaria, who fought a long battle for justice, said of the violence at Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison: “Episodes of this kind have occurred and are occurring too often, and almost always with the general indifference of a society which is used to considering prisons as social dumps.”

The Cucchi case inspired On My Skin, a film by Alessio Cremonini that won three David di Donatello awards.