Italy’s justice minister visits prison where 2 inmates died as advocates warn of summertime suicides

ROME (AP) — Italy’s justice minister visited a Turin prison on Saturday where two women died within hours of each other, as prisoner advocates warned of a spate of summertime suicides in Italy’s overcrowded detention facilities.

Justice Minister Carlo Nordio told reporters his visit wasn’t an inspection or investigation into the Lorusso and Cutugno prison, but rather a show of solidarity with the facility following the deaths Friday. He called for alternative forms of detention and the conversion of military barracks for prison use to help relieve overcrowding.

According to news reports and the Antigone Association, which advocates for better prison conditions, an Italian woman killed herself in her cell at the prison, while a Nigerian woman died within hours in the facility’s mental health ward after having refused food and drink since she arrived on July 22.

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Even before their deaths, Antigone had counted 42 prison suicides so far this year, following the 85 in 2022. The group recalled that summertime often heightens prison tensions and desperation: Increased heat in outdated facilities compounds perennial overcrowding, while decreased personnel reduces the few educational and other services offered inmates.

“In summertime, life comes to a stop,” Antigone’s national coordinator, Susanna Marietti, wrote in the Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper Saturday. “They are alone in front of desperation.”

Nordio acknowledged overcrowding was a problem but said building new prison facilities simply wasn’t an option given the costs, time and bureaucracy required. Rather, he said, the justice system should develop alternatives to detention and he proposed converting unused military barracks to help reduce prison populations.

Such alternatives, he said, are necessary because there is a “mathematical incompatibility” between the number of inmates and Italy’s prison capacity. Antigone estimates there are 10,000 more inmates in Italy than prison beds, or a prison system running on average at 121% its capacity.

“Unfortunately, prison suicides are a painful burden that all countries must deal with and often they are unforeseeable,” Nordio said in comments after his midmorning visit to the facility, where he met with personnel and prisoner advocates and was met by chants of “liberta” or “freedom” from inmates.

Italian news reports have quoted Italy’s national advocate for prisoners, Bruno Mellano, as saying no one at the prison had advised his office that the Nigerian inmate hadn’t eaten for over two weeks. Her lawyer, Wilmer Perga, told Corriere della Sera on Saturday that she wasn’t on a hunger strike in protest but had simply given up on living.

The opposition Democratic Party said Nordio’s visit wasn’t enough, arguing the right-wing government of Premier Giorgia Meloni hasn’t prioritized improving prison conditions or addressing mental health issues among inmates.

Lawmaker Debora Serracchiani, in charge of justice matters for the Democrats, said Nordio had rejected the opposition’s proposed amendments to remedy budget cuts and its proposals to incentivize psychiatrists and psychologists to work in prisons. In a statement, she lamented that he refused to consider new construction in favor of “talking about barracks.”

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.


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