Inmates rioted and overran a number of prisons in Italy on Monday, escaping their facilities and kidnapping officers, as the ripple effects of a drastic coronavirus lockdown in the country’s north started to take hold.
Riots took place in 22 prisons after visitors were banned in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus, the Justice Ministry said in a statement. Multiple inmates have died in the riots, and some continue to occupy their facilities, even reaching the roof in some cases.
The chaotic scenes come after Italy’s interior ministry announced severe penalties for any Italians who attempt to flee the lockdown in the north.
Anyone leaving the “containment regions” risks three months in prison, or a fine of up to 206 euros ($234), Luciana Lamorgese said.
Italy saw a dramatic spike of 1,247 confirmed novel coronavirus cases on March 7, the Civil Protection Department said in a statement. The number of cases in the country has now reached 7,375, with 366 deaths—the highest number of fatalities outside mainland China, and the biggest outbreak in Europe.
The move puts the entire Lombardy region, as well as 14 other provinces, under travel restrictions; it is one of the toughest responses implemented outside of mainland China to get the COVID-19 epidemic under control.
The coordinator for intensive care in the crisis unit for the Lombardy region told CNN that Lombardy’s health care system was “one step from collapse” despite efforts to free up hospital beds.
“We are now being forced to set up intensive care treatment in corridors,” Antonio Pesenti said. “We’ve emptied entire hospital sections to make space for seriously sick people.”
He described seeing “a tsunami of patients,” adding that there could be 18,000 patients in hospitals by the end of the month if the virus continues to spread.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “Italians should be worried. If people would just stay home, we could end this in two weeks,” he added. “I hope we control this in the coming weeks. If we don’t get to that point, we will have a disaster.”
Checks on compliance with the movement ban will be carried out on main highways and along smaller roads by the Carabinieri, Italy’s military police, and municipal police forces, while railway police, health authority workers, and civil protection staff using thermoscan appliances will enforce the travel ban on the state’s railways.
Michele De Marsico told CNN at a Milan train station Sunday that he was trying to work out how to return to southern Italy. “I was worried, so I came here to the train station to check out the situation,” said the 55-year-old.
Travelers, including those departing or arriving in the containment regions by airplane, will be checked to see if they have a self-declared travel exemption.
Checks will also be introduced for cruise ship passengers arriving in Venice, who will not be able to disembark to visit the city, but will only be able to return to their place of residence or country of origin.
Protests In Italian Prisons
According to an earlier statement from the Italian Justice Ministry, prisoners’ protests in facilities across the country “concerned the coronavirus emergency, as well as the measures issued by the government to reduce the risk of infection and protect those who live and work within the prison.”
In the southern city of Foggia, inmates occupied the entire compound and 43 detainees escaped, before being captured by the prison’s police force and other law enforcement agencies, the statement said.
In Modena, in the north, inmates are “still occupying two sections of the prison.” There some inmates broke into the infirmary, where they got hold of various drugs, including methadone, the director of the Italian penitentiary system Francesco Basentini, said in a TV interview Monday.
Six inmates died there, he added. Two of the dead died of an overdose, and another from the inhalation of toxic smoke. Basentini said the cause of the three remaining deaths was under investigation.
Meanwhile, in Rome’s prison of Rebibbia, inmates reached an external area and badly damaged an entire pavilion. And four prison officers were kidnapped in Bologna, where 350 inmates managed to occupy two sections of the facility. Protests are ongoing in a number of other prisons around the country, with prisoners reaching the roofs of some facilities. Almost all of the jails are “seriously damaged,” according to the ministry statement.
Quarantine Zone Across Country’s North
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed a decree early Sunday, putting almost 16 million people across northern Italy on lockdown.
Announcing the new measures, Conte said, “There will be an obligation to avoid any movement of people who are either entering or leaving” the affected areas. “Even within the areas moving around will occur only for essential work or health reasons,” he said.
Schools, universities, theaters, cinemas, bars, and nightclubs have been closed. Religious ceremonies, including funerals and weddings, and sporting events are being suspended or postponed. Restaurants and bars can be open from 6am to 6pm, and malls and markets can open on weekdays if they can assure a meter (three feet) of distance between each client.
While the lockdown only applies to northern Italy’s “red zone,” other measures will be applied to the entire country. These include the closure of pubs and museums, the suspension of religious ceremonies and the postponement of sporting events. Pope Francis delivered a livestreamed prayer from the Vatican on Sunday.
Italy’s Finance and Economy Ministry said in a statement on Monday that core sectors of the economy and the public administration would remain open for business even in the restricted areas, but warned that the precautionary measures would impact sectors tied to transportation, lodging, food, drink and entertainment.
“This is of the utmost importance not only from a healthcare point of view but also economically. A temporary downturn in some sectors or areas of the country is preferable to a longer crisis that could spread to the whole economy via demand and supply effects,” the statement read.
Hotel worker Alice Baldisserri, 38, told CNN that “Milan’s hotels are empty, so the jobs are at risk.” Baldisserri said Italy’s tourism industry had been “hit the hardest” by the outbreak.
The restrictions could take a toll on Italy’s already fragile economy. Italian tourism representatives warned last month that 200 million euros ($260 million) in bookings had been canceled since the outbreak was first announced.
The Italian government is preparing measures to support workers and firms across the country, particularly in sectors and areas most affected by the outbreak to try to prevent “lasting damage to the supply side of the Italian economy and permanent employment losses.”
The World Health Organization has called on “all countries to continue efforts that have been effective in limiting the number of cases and slowing the spread of the virus.”
In a statement, the organization said, “Allowing uncontrolled spread should not be a choice of any government, as it will harm not only the citizens of that country but affect other countries as well.”