A Dystopian Video of Prison Violence Is Forcing Italy to Confront Police Brutality

Footage of inmates being beaten by guards had triggered a reckoning with police-related violence that advocates say is at least 20 years overdue.
July 21, 2021, 4:38pm
A Dystopian Video of Prison Violence Is Forcing Italy to Confront Police Brutality
A demonstrator faces police during protests at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001. Photo: Paul BLACKMORE/RAPHO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

ROME – The video footage was nightmarish. It showed inmates running a gauntlet of prison guards, who beat people as they staggered past, trying to protect the backs of their heads. Prisoners can be seen being clubbed with batons, slapped, and kicked, at times kneeling on the ground, totally defenceless.

Filmed at the Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison near Naples in April 2020, during Italy’s first COVID lockdown, the footage was obtained and published by Italian newspaper Domani last month. According to the newspaper’s reporters, the beating was punishment for a prison riot organised in the previous days. Fifty-two correctional officers were arrested over the violence witnessed in the video, which shocked Italy when it was released, and reignited a debate about police brutality in the country.

Advertisement

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the G8 summit in Genoa, where police attacked anti-globalisation demonstrators, culminating in the death of 23-year-old protester Carlo Giuliani, 23. His death triggered an examination of police-linked violence in Italy that has never fully been resolved.

GettyImages-115221522.jpg

Students watch on as demonstrators face police during the G8 summit protests. Photo: Paul BLACKMORE/RAPHO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The 27th G8 summit – as the group of the world’s richest developed nations was called back then, as it included Russia – took place in the city of Genoa between the 19th and 21st of July in 2001, and is remembered as the peak of the anti-globalisation movement in Europe.

It is also remembered for the extreme levels of police violence against protesters, even when they were entirely peaceful. Amnesty International would later describe it as the "most serious suspension of democratic rights in a Western country after the Second World War."⁣⁣

No clashes were reported on the opening day of the summit, but on the 20th of July, various protest groups were infiltrated by aggressive protesters wearing black helmets and ski masks. The situation rapidly escalated. Most of the police violence targeted the so-called “white vests,” a peaceful group of anti-globalisation protesters holding an authorised demonstration, as well as reporters and doctors on duty.

It was during this chaos that Giuliani was killed in Piazza Alimonda, shot by a cop. The moments surrounding his death were captured in several famous photos, showing Giuliani approaching a police van holding a fire extinguisher, a pistol being fired by someone inside the van, and Giuliani’s body, which was run over by the van. On police radios, voices could be heard saying "let’s hope they will all die, 1-0 for us". The exact circumstances surrounding Giuliani’s death have never been fully clarified, and no one has ever been convicted.

Advertisement

The following day and night, more violent clashes took place. Shortly after midnight, police attacked the Diaz-Pascoli and Diaz-Pertini schools, where peaceful demonstrators had gathered for the night. British journalist and activist Mark Covell was among the victims of the police attack – he suffered a punctured lung, shattered ribs, and two missing teeth.

In 2018, national prosecutor Enrico Zucca wrote that, “In the space of a few minutes, all the occupants of the ground floor were reduced to helplessness. The moans of the injured were joined by calls for an ambulance.” Witness Michael Gieser, an economist from Belgium recounted that although protestors were lying on the ground, "Policemen came and started beating us, one after the other. I was covering my head with my hands and thinking: 'I must resist'. I could hear people screaming 'stop, please' and I repeated it, too. It made me think of slaughtering pigs. They were treating us like animals, like pigs.”

Demonstrators gather in Genoa in July 2001. Photo: Paul BLACKMORE/RAPHO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Demonstrators gather in Genoa in July 2001. Photo: Paul BLACKMORE/RAPHO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Meanwhile, police brutality at the Bolzaneto barracks against detained protesters amounted to torture, the European Court of Human Rights said in 2017. Hundreds of demonstrators were spat at, verbally abused and physically humiliated or threatened with rape, the court heard.

The officers involved in the violence against, and torture of, protesters in Genoa received lower sentences than those who smashed shop windows. One of the main reasons being that it was not clear who had committed the violations. Some convicted officers were even reinstated and eventually received promotions. It wasn’t until 2017 that Italy passed a domestic law against torture, but even that has been accused of being too light – the MP who drafted the first bill did not vote for its final version as it was too timid when compared to the original draft.

Advertisement

"The G8 in Genoa changed a part of the history of Italy," Emanuele Russo, national president of Amnesty Italy, told VICE World News. According to him, "the management of public order was so catastrophic that a profound revision of the protocols and training of the police force in the country was necessary."

Protesters wash their eyes with water after being tear-gassed. Photo: Demonstrators gather in Genoa in July 2001. Photo: Paul BLACKMORE/RAPHO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Protesters wash their eyes with water after being tear-gassed. Photo: Demonstrators gather in Genoa in July 2001. Photo: Paul BLACKMORE/RAPHO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Although there have been some reforms, today’s Italian police officers are among the few in Europe who are not provided with identification codes. This is true for each of the four police forces in Italy. In the EU, only Austria, Cyprus, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, as well as Italy, do not provide their cops with ID codes.

According to Amnesty International, the inability to recognise officers during demonstrations has led to widespread impunity. Power abuse is so widespread that the association ACAD (Associazione contro abusi in divisa, the Association Against Police Abuse) released a free handbook on how to behave in front of the police. The handbook can be downloaded in PDF format and stored on a smartphone.

For this reason, Amnesty Italy has called for their introduction several times over the last decade. The most recent campaign is called “Forza polizia, mettici la faccia” (C’mon police, put your face to it). It was launched in November 2018 and is still active.

"Police officers are like doctors, they play a fundamental social role. There must be accountability for them, just like I have the right to know who is the doctor operating on me," said Amnesty's Russo. 

Advertisement

Russo criticised resistance from some police unions against introducing the codes. "A police force that respects human rights must not be afraid to be transparent and bring to justice the few elements that break the law. Unfortunately not everyone understands it."

One of the most reluctant police unions is SAP (Autonomous Police Union), Italy’s second largest police union. Over the years, SAP has become famous for controversial statements, especially against victims of abuse of power.

During a SAP national congress held in 2014, the then national secretary Gianni Tonelli applauded some officers previously convicted for the death of Federico Aldrovandi, an 18-year-old whose chest was compressed until death following a police stop. In 2017, he dubbed the proposed law against torture that was being discussed by MPs as “an ideological manifesto against law enforcement."

In 2018 he ran for office with the Lega, the xenophobic right-wing party led by Matteo Salvini. In the same year, Tonelli was convicted for defaming Stefano Cucchi – a 31-year-old who died after a beating in a barracks in Rome – and his family. 

A demonstrator during the protest 20 years ago. Photo: Paul BLACKMORE/RAPHO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

A demonstrator during the protest 20 years ago. Photo: Paul BLACKMORE/RAPHO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Stefano Paoloni, the current SAP national secretary, told VICE World News that "ID codes are silly numbers outdated by technology. Rather, we are in favour of the use of body cams, which also allow a better reconstruction of events during a trial". Recordings would be stored on a secure server and an encrypted cloud only accessible to prosecutors.

"Codes create the risk of protesters identifying officers or turning on a particular officer during a demonstration. They made sense 15 years ago, today they are just an ideological legacy," he said.

Advertisement

Mauro Palma, the national ombudsman for the rights of persons detained or deprived of their liberty, called the video from the Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison as “not an isolated case" and that "not all agents are like this, but radical interventions in the training of prison police are urgently needed."

A number of experts and activists believe that in Italy there are serious gaps in the training of officers, especially on human rights. Moreover, structural reform is difficult as there are many police corps answering to different ministries. In particular, Carabinieri and Guardia di Finanza are military corps respectively answering to the Ministries of Defense and Economics, while Polizia di Stato and Polizia Penitenziaria follow the indications of the Ministries of Home Affairs and Justice. 

According to Amnesty’s Russo, 'there is a cultural problem in the police force and we have to act on several fronts, including training'.

SAP’s Paoloni said that a school for public order was created after the G8 in Genoa. Yet, activists believe it is not enough.

“In Italy [there] exists the legend of the so-called rotten apples, meaning isolated cases of violent agents. But if these violent people escape justice and make a career, it is the tree that is rotten, not the apples,” an ACAD spokesperson told VICE World News. “Law enforcement has a strong corporatism that often makes officers inhuman and ensures violent people an institutional defence. As a result, many abuses are not even reported for fear of further consequences.”