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Six inmates die as prison riots over coronavirus rules grip Italy

Measures imposed in Italy's jails to contain the country's coronavirus outbreak, the worst outside China, have ignited tensions among inmates across the country.

By Monday, protests had been reported at 27 different sites across the country, and 6 people had been pronounced dead after clashes on Sunday at the Saint Anna penitentiary in Modena, in one among the so-called "red zones" under quarantine in Italy.

While authorities await autopsy results to investigate the explanation for deaths, prison administration sources reported overdoses following a possibility into the prison infirmary. Two victims died after they were transferred to Alessandria and Verona on Monday.

Also ahead of time Monday, a jail break was attempted in Foggia, within the southern region of Apulia, where dozens of individuals managed to flee.

Protests and riots broke come in several prisons over the weekend, beginning on Saturday in Salerno near Naples, where about 200 detainees vandalised the primary floor of the building before barricading themselves on the roof, in keeping with local media reports.

Demonstrations then spread to the nearby Poggioreale prison, additionally as Pavia, Frosinone, Vercelli, Alessandria, Foggia and Modena, among others.

If coronavirus were to hit Italy's often overcrowded prisons, it'd pose major health and logistical challenges.

Prison administrations across the country have implemented restrictions, including a ban on family visits and leave permits.

The number of infections in Italy shot up by 25 percent on Sunday to quite 7,000, with deaths soaring by 133 during a day to 366, in keeping with the civil protection agency.

The majority of cases are in Lombardy and other northern and central regions, where 16 million people are placed under quarantine.

On March 7, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed off on a series of recommendations to prisons.

These include limiting release of temporary license and probation to avoid detainees' movement, while also endorsing confinement where possible. Face-to-face visits all told but exceptional cases were recommended to be banned and held instead by phone or Skype.

"A series of restrictions were gradually introduced in prisons, especially within the red zones but also across Italy, alongside preventive measures," Alessio Scandurra, a managing member at prisoners' rights association Antigone, told Al Jazeera.

The protests coincided with other new rules like the closure of all schools across Italy, the country most suffering from coronavirus after China. Iran has also faced a severe outbreak in terms of infections and deaths, and therefore the Islamic Republic on Monday announced the discharge of 70,000 prisoners.

"Yesterday's protests [in Italy] were due on the one hand to the fear of contagion, and on the opposite hand, to the restrictions imposed. Some detainees are posing for an amnesty because the only way they'll avoid contagion and avoid isolation," Scandurra explained.

The organisation argues that as restrictions are imposed, other rules should be loosened, like allowing prisoners to create video calls more regularly.

Some protests have seen prisoners attempt vandalism, while others were more violent.

In Pavia, prisoners took two officers hostage, in keeping with reports. In Modena, inmates barricaded themselves inside the power and reportedly set fire to mattresses. Videos of the incident show anti-riot police armed with batons attempting to enter the building, as smoke billows out.

In some cases, relatives of the inmates staged protests outside the prisons.

In a letter to Antigone seen by Al Jazeera, a concerned wife wrote: "Should the virus make its thanks to those cold walls, it'd be the tip. My husband has health problems, the prison is tiny and there are twice as many of us staying there as it's made for. One falling ill would be enough to infect the remainder of the inmates."

Another prisoner's wife wrote: "I hope that [the authorities] will soon take more practical decisions like sending them home. My husband only has seven months left ... plenty of others like myself are feeling anxious and worried."

'Problem is overcrowding, not coronavirus'
According to Antigone's yearly report, at 120 percent their capacity, Italian prisons are the foremost overcrowded in Europe. Forty-two prisons across the country have an overcrowding rate of over 150 percent.

According to the Al Jazeera news, they contacted the Modena prison and therefore the Ministry of Justice for comment, but had not received a response by the time of publication.

"I am cognizant that an emergency like the coronavirus can create tensions within prisons, but our aim with these measures must be made clear: it's our duty to shield the health and people who work and board our penitentiaries," Alfonso Bonafede, justice minister, told reporters.

Gennarino de Fazio, the national secretary of UILPA, a jail police officers' union, caught up a national meeting led by the prime minister.

"We are in an emergency situation in numerous parts of Italy," De Fazio told the Al Jazeera news. "These are critical situations that have caused existing problems to come back to the surface. it's only the tip of the iceberg."

"The problem isn't the coronavirus. Overcrowding, organisational issues and decay are the matter. We worry about the spread of the coronavirus, but there are other illnesses already present because of a malfunctioning health system and unsanitary conditions."


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