Where Prisoners Wash With Bottled Water

Hell is a place without water: In a wide-ranging investigation of Italy’s vast prison system, L’Espresso’s Arianna Giunti finds overcrowded, unhealthy and crumbling conditions, and a shocking lack of water. For American readers accustomed to the taciturn aggressivity of American prison guard unions, the surprise here will be that much of the criticism of prisoners’ living conditions comes from the men and women who guard the prisons themselves:

No water to take a shower, to wash vegetables, to cook a plate of pasta, to quench your thirst. Toilets that do not flush and that secrete dark foul-smelling sewage. Faucets that ran dry weeks ago, from which it is impossible to obtain even the minimum amount of water that would be sufficient to wash your hands as a matter of basic hygiene or simply to rinse off your face, which is drenched in sweat due to the infernal heat. Also: walls that risk collapsing, plaster consumed by humidity and mildew, light fixtures that fall from the ceiling, water leaks that threaten to reach live electrical wiring, flooded corridors, nonexistent digital archives, and suspicions of asbestos in coverings.

While talk resumes of a suicide epidemic (five deaths in the past month alone), in our prisons another emergency, no less worrying, is playing out: the water shortage, which in these days of scorching heat is wreaking havoc in many Italian penitentiaries and is causing tension, riots, and health emergencies.
Reports and briefings by the prison guards unions and the organizations for prisoners rights have already reached the public prosecutor and the Department of Corrections from the institutions of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Ariano Irpino, Avellino, Cosenza, Cassino, Palermo. Similar situations have been reported in Milan, Lecce, Turin, and Naples.

In fact, the often ancient structures that house inmates (some date as far back as the 17th century) have plumbing and pipes that have been corroded over time and are unable to supply water to all the floors of the buildings and to cope with so massive a prison population.

On the other hand, the prison plan announced by the government, which promised to solve the Italian penitentiary building crisis, seems to have run aground.
This state of decay, in other words, is the order of the day, as demonstrated by the photos taken by insiders in many prisons of the peninsula and published by l’Espresso.

“It is a degrading and humiliating situation for everyone,” thunders the Secretary General of the prison guards’ union, Donato Capece.

The most critical situations in the past weeks have taken place in Campania, including riots by prisoners exasperated by the heat and the precarious hygienic conditions. In Avellino, in particular, this past July 16th the inmates of four cells in the high security unit set fire to oil-soaked rags and plastic bottles as a form of protest. An officer of the prison guards was hospitalized for a mild case of poisoning [from the fumes]. Problems have been reported also at Ariano Irpino, where –despite the fact that the penitentiary is considered one of Italy’s “model prisons”– there is no map of the internal water supply system that would permit immediate intervention to plug the copious leaks. “For this reason –they report from SAPPE– the regional superintendent has charged the technical office with drawing up a project to reconstruct the entire water supply system of the prison, which must be accomplished in the shortest time possible:” reports which have ended up in a detailed briefing for the public prosecutor of Benevento, which has jurisdiction there.

The situation in the prison of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, which can only house 547 inmates maximum, is likewise tragic. Here the water problem is structural and reappears again each summer without fail, when the heat becomes sweltering: the water supply is drawn from a well, the water is then rendered drinkable within the prison building, which is not linked to the public water system. So even washing one’s hands becomes a feat. There supposedly is a memorandum of understanding between the penitentiary administration and the Campania region, signed as long ago as 2004, which however has remained dead letter: the city does not have the money to finance the works. These days the issue has made a comeback and the ombudsperson for inmates in Campania, Adriana Tocco, has visited the prison. What emerged was above all a problem of bureaucratic impasse: the connection to the water grid was apparently authorized by DAP, which allocated funds for the expected expenses (about one million euro) but such funds cannot be transferred from the Ministry of Justice to a local government, since they concern work to be carried out beyond the perimeter of the property belonging to the prison administration. In other words, a Kafkaesque situation from which there seems to be no exit.

It is the same script in the correctional facility of Cosenza, which houses 221 inmates, where the situation in the past days has become so intolerable that the prefect ordered the fire department to provide emergency water supplies, for hygienic and sanitary usage, by means of its tank trucks. In effect, the building’s internal tanks, which can hold fifty thousand liters, had been completely drained.

Thus, the chronic lack of water leads to a single solution: the purchase of bottles of mineral water, which are used as much to drink as to wash and to cook food– a ruinously expensive proposition for the inmates. Although bottled water at the prison store is sold slightly cheaper than what is normally available commercially, it still represents a large expense for those behind bars. In must be said, nevertheless, that some working alternatives exist, like the one in Arghillà prison, Reggio Calabria, where inmates can obtain drinking water from especially-provided distributors by means of a rechargeable card, which also can be used to pay for the electric current used to cook within the cells.

Those who portray –in the literal sense of the term– the situation of abandonment and desolation of our prisons are the people who cross their thresholds every day to go to work: the officers of the prison guards.

Thus we learn how in the Melfi prison near Potenza the walls are almost entirely stripped of plaster, which falls in chunks, rising damp is everywhere and the showers do not work. In Trani, in Puglia, the situation is also far from rosy: here the toilets in the cells are out of order, the flush handles do not work, so inmates must use buckets of water.

On the other hand, the report filed by the guards’ union on the Ucciardone prison in Palermo speaks of “unhealthy environments, saturated with humidity, unlivable in the summer for want of air conditioning, in the winter for insufficient heating, shocking, when not completely lacking, hygienic conditions,” personnel “that does not respect monthly shifts” and is obliged to cohabit with “the presence of asbestos cement.”

Fallen plaster, mildew, rising damp from rainwater in the walls, damaged walls that risk collapsing and casings probably made of asbestos can be found in the correctional facility in Trapani, as witnessed in a recent inspection headed by the regional secretary of the UILPA-corrections union.

Overcrowding, on the other hand, is the order of the day at Pagliarelli in Palermo, a titanic correctional structure that has more than 1400 inmates, of which over 400 are in maximum security detention.

Meanwhile, work on the new pavilion of the Agrigento prison, which was supposed to lead to 200 new places, appears to have been frozen. “Here we have long since passed the alarm threshold, and to know that this is the city of the interior Minister, Angelino Alfano, makes everything even more absurd –clamors the regional coordinator of the UILPA-corrections for Sicily, Gioacchino Veneziano– work has been interrupted and a manager on a permanent basis is still missing.” “The money that has been spent –Veneziano concludes– could at least have been used for the upkeep of the old structure, so as to avoid rendering it what it is today, a veritable sieve.”

Indeed, the situation inside the prison, to judge by the pictures, is disastrous: leaks are contained with plastic buckets, the rain gets in through the windows and is kept at bay by black trash bags, the cells and corridors get flooded and the water threatens to come in contact with live electrical wiring, the lamp holders seem about to fall off the ceiling at any moment, the documents in the archives are not digitized but rather crammed in cardboard boxes, the metal detectors are defective and obsolete.

Mice, crumbling cells, broken showers and decay of the common areas occur in Termini Imerese too, the special prison strongly advocated by General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa.

In Liguria, instead, there is a health emergency. Liguria has one of Italy’s smallest and oldest penitentiaries: the one in Savona, a former convent dating back to 1400 with an official capacity of 38 (though it actually houses almost 70). Over the years only the first floor has been renovated, adding showers and windows. The other floor, which is underground, has neither showers nor windows, only “hopper windows” (little more than slits) that do not permit the air to circulate, not even when the temperatures become hellish.

An antique prison continually at the mercy of health emergencies is located in Imperia, practically in the center of town. “As we are close to the border –explains Michele Lorenzo, regional secretary the prison guard union SAPPE for Liguria– many foreigners without a residency permit are imprisoned here, as well as smugglers who arrive in worrying health conditions. We have had episodes of TB, scabies, and suspect cases of Ebola that luckily turned out to be false alarms.” “It’s useless for the prisons administration to think it can solve the problem with some piecemeal maintenance to stanch the damage –Lorenzo continues– these prisons should be razed to the ground and rebuilt, to adapt them to the problems and emergencies of the present.”

And the prison plan that promised to create brand-new penitentiaries and overhaul existing ones? What became of it in the end? No-one talks about it anymore and work seems to have halted. Even the website www.pianocarceri.it that informed citizens in real time of the progress of penitentiary building projects is no longer active, at least for the time being. The last update goes back to February 2014, more than a year ago. Before it ended up –in June 2014– under scrutiny from the Court of Audit, which led to an inquest on the contracts that blocked the tenders for the building of the new pavilions.

“We are also still waiting for someone to appoint the Special Commissioner the government had promised,” notes SAPPE general secretary Capece.

Osservatorio Antigone also wonders where the good intentions of the government have gone, and in its latest 2015 report on incarceration conditions in Italy it states it clearly: “As of today, the only significant novelty is the beginning of restructuring work on the Bolzano prison with project financing. An experiment in partial privatization that of course must be closely monitored.”

Apart from that “Italy turns out to be, after Russia (298.000 employees), the European country with the most correctional officers, 45.772 to be exact, despite the fact that many countries have more inmates in absolute terms than Italy.” Personnel who are employed in surveillance tasks behind prison walls in disastrous working conditions and who share a bitter and ironic fate with the inmates: to live as prisoners in hellish circumstances.

Arianna Giunti Translated from Italian by D. Lee for International Boulevard