A letter from an incarcerated companion on the massacre in Modena Prison. [Published in Italian on Round Robin on March 19, 2020. Translated to French on Attaque on April 8, 2020. Most translator’s notes are from Attaque]
A little more than a week has passed since the revolt in Modena Prison, and the media has already forgotten the massacre that took place here and in the other prisons where revolt broke out, just a few days ago. Nine deaths in Modena alone.
I knew some of them because, until a month ago, we were in cells close together, and these days I’m thinking of them so much I can’t sleep.
They were men who, just before, were discussing what could be done to improve the developing situation.
Many prisoners found the atmosphere create by the new director Maria Martone hard to bear. Following the orders of the prison administration, she had been increasing restrictions by moving inmates between cells. “We need the space,” they told us in February, “you’ll have to make an effort.” All of this was accompanied by thinly veiled threats of being transfered or worse if the inmates didn’t passively go along with the the new director’s demands.
This atmosphere added to the usual problems in any place of confinement: negligence and harassment at the hands of men in uniform and of the prison bureaucracy, the horrible food, and the lack of proper healthcare (apart from, of course, psychiatric meds), in addition to the total solitude and despair of those abandoned with no help from outside. Fear of the virus was the straw that broke the camel’s back, loaded as it was with rage and despair, and it gave voice to the bodies and mouths of the oppressed who are locked up in prison through fault of society.
Far too much has been said about the revolt in Modena Prison, spitting on its dead and on all the prisoners inside. But almost no one has seriously examined its causes in depth. There was no need for a secret mastermind, you just need to understand that this was caused by the world of the prison itself and all the problems faced by those locked up. In moments of rage, fear and scepticism fall away and a mass of individuals comes together, each with their own pain, their own desire for redemption, and they find a way to express with courage and determination what it is to carry these years of state repression in their bodies.
Those who have never slept in a cell, behind an armoured door, can’t understand what it means to be in prison. All those who, like vultures, snatched up what happened don’t deserve to be listened to, because they don’t know what they’re talking about, since for them, all the dead are “Tunisian drug addicts”, or “scum” as some say. There are some who speak of installing ovens and burning them all alive.
We have of course seen people take these damn drugs, not everyone is able to deal with prison lucidly, but it doesn’t interest us that they say the infirmary was stormed and medication was abused. Our assessment of what happened is like a compass needle, pointing north even when it gets shaken, and so our finger points always in the same direction: the state is guilty of these deaths. From the individual guard to the volunteer from an agency who defended the actions of the administration and called for peace and security, from the ranking officer to minister Bonafeda, to those who, like Salvini, say “I told you so” [Alfonso Bonafede, the Italian justice minister, from the 5 star movement; Matteo Salvini, far-right politician with the League].
We told you so as well, but meaning something completely opposite from Salvini We fight for freedom for all, so a chasm separates us from him and his desire for a militarized prison. He complains that the guards had insufficient resources, but they were seen firing live rounds, and in photos we can clearly see one of the guards, in a warehouse, holding an automatic pistol as if aiming at someone? What resources were they lacking? Armoured vehicles? Assault rifles? Clubs? Fire hoses [their strong jets are often used to beat prisoners in segregation]? Helicopters?
Not only are the prisoners’ demands minimized, but their eminently political character is erased: what happened is not caused only by despair. No, the fact that the protests leaped from one prison to another makes it clear that only those whose freedom is taken away have yet managed a collective response to the restrictions imposed by the state for the coronavirus. There will be no going back to before, we hear this often these days, and that is also true for prisons. These revolts caused Rome to adopt ever stricter measures, since this is the only language a structure like the prison administration can understand. Future revolts will be repressed, and in the mean time, we hear more stories of the massive, ongoing beating of prisoners, whether they participated in the revolts or not.
Blows are the only form of communication coming from the ministry, to make the prisoners understand that they must never again dare to rebel, since the screws felt real fear this time and Italy looked bad internationally. In the meantime, inmates are transferred all over; we know that in Modena, the rebels were shipped out half naked and covered in bruises, and that their worried families are still waiting to be in direct contact with their loved ones.
For a few days, the balance of power was reversed. Inmates found the strength to come together (not all, sure, but still) in order to make their voices heard in a way that this country hasn’t seen in many years. The media have already set aside the news that, in reality, continues arriving from the families of inmates. This isn’t over, everyone knows, and some are calling for a more rational prison (we don’t know what this means), some want the army outside prisons, some call for prisoners to be locked in their cells. None of this will stop the rage of the men and women locked up, since it’s all the same structure that provoked the explosion of revolts like these, so often unexpected.
We’ve put up with too much these past years, and the most recent restrictions have made visible the suffering inherent in all prisons. We know that even those who didn’t participate in the revolts laughed in their hearts, because there is no better joy for a convict, someone who knows what it means to stay in a fucking cell, tha to know that a prison was shut down by revolt and that people escaped. And the exploited, those who today are passively enduring this freedomless period of total subjugation to the state and to experts, will one day remember those who were fighting from the start. All the exploited will suffer for what the state is trying to do through its various measures. We are only at the beginning of a long, new struggle that must be waged, that will make us really fight.
We on the outside, we need to spread word of these struggles and show our solidarity, by making the exploited understand that they aren’t at all irrational. There is a word, normally used sparingly, but considering what happened, deserves to be raised on the banners of future struggles against prison, and that word is vengeance. The silence about these men murdered by the prison system has become deafening. They deserve for us to remember them, now and in the future, to add a deeper meaning to the events of these times.
Trieste, March 16, 2020