On March 8, the Italian government announced that family visits to prisons would be suspended in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Within a few hours, prisoners across Italy started rioting.
By March 10, 12 inmates were reported dead.
Most of the prisoners died due to drug overdoses after breaking into clinics during the mayhem, according to Italian Justice Minister Alfonso Bonafede.
“It is important to emphasize that the vast majority of detainees did not participate in the riots,” Bonafede testified later at a government hearing.
Italy’s prisons represented one of the earliest test cases for coping with the challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to incarcerated populations. Even as debates mount in the U.S. over releasing at-risk prisoners, the disease has already caused chaos in prison systems around Europe.
Facilities in the European Union report massive shortages of staff and protective gear, little help for inmates who have suddenly lost all contact to the outside world, and scant guidance from governments. In many cases, like Italy, the disease caught prison authorities mostly unprepared.
Others worry that a health catastrophe may be only a few weeks away.
“This is just a time bomb in waiting,” said Steve Gillian, the General Secretary for the United Kingdom’s trade union for correctional officers, in an interview with The Crime Report.
“We are aware of what happened in the Italian prison system, and are trying to have a good dialogue with the government. But we are worried, as we’ve never faced this before.”
European penal systems house 600,000 inmates and employ 300,000 staff. There are few consistent policies, as officials scramble to put quickly adapted emergency plans into action. There have been reports of deaths from COVID-19 from France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, and officials expect those numbers to rise as the disease spreads.
On March 15, the World Health Organization European office provided guidelines to prisons to prepare for the pandemic, calling for physical distancing, the use of masks, and restricting access for correction officers if they are feeling sick.
But while these recommendations may work well outside prison environments, implementing them behind bars is close to impossible, says Nadja Salson, a policy officer at the European Federation of Public Service Unions.
“Within the system, there are so many overcrowded prisons and health monitoring is bad in general,” Salson said in an interview with The Crime Report. “Some prisons don’t even have basic amenities such as soap.”
Other prison systems cite the lack of protective gear and testing as major obstacles to control the pandemic.
In Spain, which at this writing had three COVID-19 deaths in its corrections system—two correctional officers, and one prisoner— different workshops are sewing masks for staff and inmates, although there is a lack of material, said Alberto Tellez, correctional officer director at ACAIP, which represents Spanish officers.
There are 95 cases of COVID-19 and 700 correctional officers on quarantine.
Tellez also cited the lack of diagnostic tests for staff.
“Correctional officers are considered essential workers and have to come in to the prisons,” said Tellez. “But they aren’t afforded the same access to diagnostic exams like police or health workers.
“A test is the only way to tell if someone has the virus. In a prison we can’t wait for workers to show symptoms.”
Testing is also a problem in other systems, casting doubt on the official case numbers.
Greece, whose facilities have long had a history of massive overcrowding, registers over 11,000 prisoners; but not a single case of COVID-19 has been announced, reported the head of the corrections trade union in an email to The Crime Report.
The government has already banned visits to inmates, and all personal belongings.
Similar restrictions exist in Romania’s prisons, which has not reported any cases of the virus, wrote the head of the corrections unit in an email.
In the United Kingdom, two prisoners with underlying medical conditions have died of COVID-19, says Gillian.
6,000 UK Corrections Staff in Isolation
More than 6,000 correctional staff are self-isolating, leading to another concern for prison administrators: the loss of officers to manage prisoners.
“If correctional officers are all out sick how can we manage the inmates?” said Gillian.
Another option many prisons have been considering, and in some cases implementing, is early release.
In Norway, over the past few weeks the system has released 199 prisoners, according to the trade union.
In Belgium, prisoners who are six months from the end of their sentence may be released earlier, unless they are persons convicted of crimes such as vice or terrorism, said the head of the correctional trade union in an email.
The German state of North-Rhine Westphalia plans to release some 1,000 prisoners to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection, reported Reuters.
The growing demand for protective equipment is also a potential problem.
In France, whose penitentiaries have long had a history of overcrowding, some 100,000 masks were distributed to correctional officers on March 28. The masks are mandatory, but worker representatives say supplies will only last for three-to-five days.
Inmates are not allowed masks, and have started to revolt as a result.
There have been reports of prisoner unrest at 17 facilities around France including Roanne, Limoges and Rennes. Prisoners transferred to different facilities due to COVID-19 have destroyed property.
As of March 30, France recorded 21 positive cases, 471 prisoners with symptoms and one death, said the correctional union.
Corrections administrators have been overwhelmed by massive amounts of release requests. The French government is drafting legislation that would allow prisoners with less than two months on their sentences to be released.
Following the riots in Italy, the government has yet to put a definite plan into place to stop spread of COVID-19 or provide support for limitations, says Nicoletta Grieco, who works as liaison with correctional officers.
In a statement emailed to The Crime Report, Grieco said, “Two days ago we have had the first penitentiary police dead for coronavirus,” and she complained of “a lack of planning to manage the worsening of the situation. “
Cara Tabachnick is a former deputy editor of The Crime Report. She is currently based in Spain.