Graphic video images surfaced Wednesday of dozens of Italian prison guards beating unarmed inmates with truncheons and fists in the aftermath of a coronavirus-related protest last year.
The April 6, 2020 incident at the Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison north of Naples was captured on surveillance footage and published by Italian daily Domani on Wednesday, prompting outrage but also calls for solidarity with the guards.
Justice Minister Marta Cartabia called an emergency meeting with the head of Italy's prison administration and prison watchdog, and asked for a full examination of the incident.
Prosecutors launched an investigation last year following complaints by prisoners of retaliatory beatings carried out over four hours, the day after a protest prompted by news that an inmate had tested positive for Covid-19.
Fifty-two people working in the prison network faced arrest or legal action in the case this week, accused variously of torture, violence and abuse of office, with a total of over 110 people under investigation.
They include eight guards arrested and another 18 placed under house arrest on Monday, including the local penitentiary police commander, two commissioners and three inspectors.
The regional director of prisons has been suspended.
Human corridor of guards
Since the coronavirus pandemic spread through Italy early last year, 15 inmates and 13 prison staff have died from Covid-19.
The first prisoner died just days before the incident at the Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison, and about a month after a wave of riots in Italian prisons, sparked by demands for Covid-19 tests and the suspension of family visits.
In the six minutes of footage published on Domani's website, filmed in various corridors and stairwells inside one of the prison wings, dozens of prison guards, many of them in helmets and carrying shields, are seen setting upon inmates.
Prisoners are seen covering their heads as they hurry through a human corridor of guards, receiving slaps on the head, kicks and beatings with truncheons as they pass.
Prisoners — some of them limping and in visible pain — can be seen climbing a stairway where guards on a landing slap them or beat them with their batons.
An inmate in a wheelchair is seen hit on the back, while images show at least three men who have fallen to the ground being beaten and kicked by guards.
'Cull them like calves'
At least 150 inmates barricaded themselves inside their cells during the protest at Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison, a medium and high-security facility that holds more than 900 people.
The following day, some inmates were made to strip before being beaten, while others were arbitrarily placed into solitary confinement, according to witness testimony cited by prosecutors.
Text messages between guards revealed that the operation, which involved over 280 penitentiary police, was planned and retaliatory in nature, prosecutors said.
"Tomorrow with wrench and pickaxe in hand, we'll cull them like calves," wrote one guard in a chat, according to prosecutors, who determined that a follow-up prison report that blamed inmates for resisting guards was false.
The justice ministry said participants in the Wednesday meeting called for the prison system's network of surveillance cameras to be promptly updated and ongoing training of prison personnel strengthened.
"The participants expressed the strongest condemnation for the violence and humiliation inflicted on the detainees, which can find neither justification nor excuse," the ministry said in a statement.
The head of Italy's left-leaning Democratic Party, Enrico Letta, denounced the guards' actions as "intolerable" and called on Cartabia to address parliament.
After initially expressing their solidarity with the prison guards after their arrests, Italy's far-right parties Wednesday pointed a finger at the newspaper Domani for disseminating photos of accused guards.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, said he planned to visit the prison on Thursday.
By Alexandria Sage