Bruises, lacerated backs, inmates on their knees. On April 6th, a wave of unprecedented violence swept the Francesco Uccella prison in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, in the province of Caserta. It was a veritable gallery of horrors. “They destroyed us,” are the words of one former inmate, who asked that his name not be printed. Now free, he takes us over the chilling events of those hours. His testimony about the brutality is corroborated by video recordings of the abuse. The recordings reveal the truth of what happened that day, allowing for a written retelling of the vicious beating that saw dozens of inmates injured at the hands of a special contingent of approximately 300 prison guards. After the initial complaints by inmates and replies by the DAP (the department of prison administration), a blanket of silence fell over the entire affair. This was interrupted only last June 11th, when the prosecutor’s office issued a search warrant naming 57 prison guards. The warrant set off a political reaction.

Matteo Salvini arrives

“The servants of the state cannot be treated like delinquents and subjected to an improper investigation. Uprisings aren’t put down with daisies. The sooner tasers and  video surveillance arrive on scene, the better. Today is a day of mourning.” This was the remark of the League party leader, Matteo Salvini, as he stood in front of the prison and reacted to the investigation launched by the public prosecutor’s office of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, led by Judge Magistrate Maria Antonietta Troncone, who ordered the search of the officers together with the confiscation of their phones.  What Salvini did not know at the time was that it was the surveillance system itself that provided investigators with images of the beatings, creating hard evidence of the brutality. The prison personnel are under investigation for torture, assault, and abusing their authority that day. And the repercussions have caused an institutional earthquake as well. On the day the warrant was issued, prison guards took to the roofs of the prison to protest legal action against them by another branch of law enforcement: the Caribinieri. It was the state versus the state. Alessandro Milita, adjunct prosecutor for Santa Maria Capua Vetere, was also outside, and had to intervene personally to restore order. The regional public prosecutor for Naples, Luigi Riello, reacted as well, requesting that Santa Maria and the Caribinieri provide him with an account of the allegations. To this day, we hear them called “alleged beatings.” But little doubt remains. The videos included in the investigation detail, minute by minute, how the squadron of officers acted well outside of any and all rules of conduct. The investigation targeted about one hundred officers, and worked to put together a reconstruction of what exactly took place that violent day.

The former inmate who agreed to tell the story of those hours under siege was housed in the Nilo pavilion. His words confirm the existence of the recordings that contain proof of the attack. “They called me in for questioning a few months ago, and they showed me the videos. In the video I saw myself, I lived through that day again,” he says. And he adds: “Believe me, I had never been clubbed, hit, and beaten that many times in my life, and we hadn’t done a thing.”

From the protests to the day of the beatings

The month of March had seen a number of inmate protests over the restrictions put in place in response to the COVID-19 health emergency. 14 inmates had died after overdosing on methadone and other drugs taken from the hospital clinics during the uprisings. The crisis was compounded by mismanagement by the DAP, led by Judge Magistrate Francesco Basentini, who later resigned amid the controversial release of a number of mafia bosses.

At the Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison, early in the pandemic, the inmates and guards did not even have access to face masks. The first protest at the beginning of March had come and gone without significant consequences. But a few weeks later, word reached the inmates that the first case of COVID-19 had been discovered in the Tamigi section, where inmates convicted of crimes of association were kept in isolation. Fear was rekindled, and with it the protests.

On April 6th, supervising Judge Magistrate Marco Puglia came to the prison to speak with a representative of the inmates. “We told him we were scared - we were afraid we would die,” the former inmate says. But early that afternoon the contingent of 300 guards showed up in the prison, for what was presented as an extraordinary search operation. Some of the officers were there from other prisons in the region. “Suddenly we heard heavy steps, and from the windows we could see dozens and dozens of guards, nearly all of them with their faces covered, heading toward our pavilion, Nilo pavilion or, soon after, hell.” In came the police. “They opened up one cell at a time. When they got to mine they said, ‘did you join the protest?’ and came down on us with clubs and blows. They tore us to pieces.” The witness shared a cell with three other men. “They told me to strip down, and while I was taking down my pants they came down on me, hitting and kicking.” At that moment they heard the cries from other cells: the guards were cutting off other inmates’ beards. “It was humiliation.” But what happened in the cells was only the beginning. “Out in the hallway there were police left and right. As we passed through they started beating us, kicking, punching, and striking us with batons, all the way to the bottom floor.” The videos confirm this account. Prison guards had lined the entire Nilo pavilion, filling all the passageways down to the courtyard, where the inmates would have their hour of outdoor time. The inmates were brought out of the cells that, on average, four of them shared, and forced to reach the exits by traversing the hallway and stairs.

There were inmates on their knees, cowering against the walls, and ending up with broken ribs and trauma of every possible kind. “I had to crawl back to my cell. I couldn’t stand up,” the witness tells us. In the days that followed, the inmates told their families and their lawyers about the brutality they had been subjected to, with support from the Antigone Association and from Samuele Ciambriello and Pietro Ioia, the guarantors for inmates in Campania and Naples. Dozens of them filed complaints. “There are guys with fractured skulls, guys who lost teeth – they clubbed me all over my body,” one inmate told his wife, in tears. “They made prisoners out of us. I can’t see, my eye is so swollen.”

The prosecutor’s office opened an investigation. But for every complaint, article, and photo that has come out in the intervening months, DAP is ready with a statement explaining that prison guards are not armed, and that, in case of disorderly conduct among prisoners, “the order is always to contain.” And containment “never entails violence, under any circumstances.” A statement that was effectively nullified by the events of April 6th, which transformed Francesco Uccella into a prison of horrors.

Traduzione di Mariangela Sullivan.

© Riproduzione riservata