Italy prison suicides spike as post-COVID misery lingers

By Alvise Armellini

ROME (Reuters) - Suicides in Italian jails have jumped to a 10-year high, the national ombudsman for prisoners said on Friday, noting that three years of the COVID-19 pandemic had made inmates' lives even more miserable.

Prison overcrowding is a chronic problem in Italy and last year then-Prime Minister Mario Draghi promised a reform of the penitentiary system after the publication of a video showing guards beating inmates in a jail near Naples.

So far this year 84 prisoners have killed themselves, with the most recent case recorded on Thursday, Ombudsman Mauro Palma told Reuters.

"These are grim statistics," he said.

The latest figure compares with an annual average of around 50 suicides over the past 10 years, and around 60 in each of the COVID-plagued years of 2020 and 2021.

Italy's prison suicide rate now stands at around 15.4 per 10,000 inmates, against a median of 5.2 among members of the 46-nation Council of Europe, according to a 2020 report by the pan-European human rights watchdog.

'LOST PLACES'

Palma said inmates who take their own lives are often young, with mental health or substance abuse issues, with no home to go to once released, and lacking a good lawyer who could win them an early release or a home-detention regime.

He said a lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality was contributing to making prisons "lost places".

"COVID has exacerbated all of this," Palma said, noting that the "theoretical and conceptual separation" of prisons from society had also become "a physical one" during the pandemic, when visiting rights were curtailed to contain the virus.

That decision was taken in early 2020, when the coronavirus first struck Italy. As a result, nationwide riots swept through penitentiaries, leaving at least 12 prisoners dead, many from drug overdoses after raiding prison medical supplies.

Palma said COVID-related restrictions on outside contacts had not yet been fully reversed, stressing it was critical for inmates to have interactions with volunteers, social workers and educators, as well as with visiting friends and family.

Time spent inside should be as useful and educational as possible, he added, adding that out of a total Italian prison population of around 55,000, 10% had left school before the age of 14 and 900 were illiterate.

Palma also criticised curbs on the use of mobile phones, tablets and computers -- motivated by security reasons -- saying they condemned prisoners to living "in a world without technology, an unreal world".

Draghi's promised prison reform has still not materialised, but this month Justice Minister Carlo Nordio told parliament he was saddened by the spike in suicides and pledged to strengthen support facilities for inmates deemed at risk of self-harm.

(Editing by Gavin Jones and Gareth Jones)