Alessio Scandurra directs the European Prison Observatory , a European network of civil society organisations engaged in monitoring and protecting the rights of detainees. The network is coordinated by the Italian association Antigone , of which Scandurra is a member. We interviewed him as part of the collaborative investigation on the impact of Covid-19 on prisons in Europe that we carried out together with the partners of EDJNet.
What have you observed about what has happened inside prisons in these two years? What have been the most remarkable trends on a European scale?
Everywhere in Europe, prison has been very quick to close at the first threat, while reopening is very slow and challenging, especially in some countries.
What impacted the most everywhere was the suspension of visits with family members. In some cases, telephone communications were charged to families and prisoners; in others, facilities lacked the IT infrastructure for video calls. Hungary is the country where the suspension of contacts with family members lasted the longest, and among other things, there was no compensatory measure.
In Italy, telephone calls were increased and a video calling system was activated almost immediately. It was a huge change, given that this service did not exist before and the level of access of the prisoners to the Internet was practically nil.
The closure of prisons led to the suspension of almost all relations with the outside world, not only with families. What has been the impact on the activities and services available to the detainees, and what is the situation now?
Civil society is an important part of prison everywhere. In Italy and elsewhere, as fewer organisations entered, services also decreased: volunteering stopped, vocational training stopped, there was hardly any school in presence. However, it must be borne in mind that even under normal conditions only a part of the population in prison in Europe benefits from initiatives and activities, so a closed prison is a fairly common condition for many.
Other services have been downsized or suspended because the pandemic has eaten up a lot of space: you have to create ad hoc sections for isolation, ad hoc sections for positive inmates, and so on – but in prison finding spaces is much more difficult than elsewhere. And you must always be ready for everything to change within a few days.
Some of the civil society organisations that remained outside the prison are also responsible for monitoring respect for the rights of prisoners, including those that are part of the European Prison Observatory. Have you been able to carry on with your work?
The independent organisations that monitor the situation in prison in different European countries are very heterogeneous. Some are large and authoritative realities, and for this reason they managed to return to prison before many others. We at Antigone resumed entering in September 2020, at that stage we were the only outsiders allowed, together with the doctors of the local healthcare agencies.
It is normal that in a moment of crisis like this many activities have been suspended; it was a choice that helped prevent even greater problems. But in times like these it is particularly important to guarantee a minimum of transparency and access to outside observers, because when there are additional elements of tension, violence can explode in the worst possible way, as we have seen with the riots and beatings that occurred in Italy at the beginning of the first wave.
Has something similar happened in other countries?
I have heard of very few protests – and of very limited dimensions – in some European countries at