The last time Daniela Ernesti heard her husband’s voice was on February 26, 2021. At 1.58pm the phone rang, the call came from the Orvieto prison. Erio Pettinari, 62, had called her even a few hours earlier and the reason was always the same: she was not well. A few days ago an outbreak of covid-19 had broken out in the Umbrian structure and Ernesti feared for her husband’s health. He was right to worry.
On the evening of February 27, Pettinari was taken to the hospital in Terni: “Pneumonia sars-cov-2 relata”, reads the hospitalization report. The day before, on the phone, he didn’t even know he was positive. Three weeks later, on March 22, he died alone in the Terni hospital, where he had been urgently transferred.
“The state did not protect my husband”, denounces Ernesti, 60, a cancer patient and unemployed. When her husband was sentenced in the fall, in the midst of the second wave of 2020, she hoped he would get an alternative sentence, she says on the phone from Zagarolo, where she lives. After all, he had been taken to prison for old crimes, he was 62 years old and was already seriously ill. But nothing managed to get him out of jail: he spent the last days of his life in a cell, as happened to 18 other inmates who died of covid-19.
Thousands of people in prison have fallen ill since February 2020. Tight spaces, little cleaning and the absence of personal protective equipment have favored the circulation of the new coronavirus much more than outside. In December 2020 on average for every ten thousand inmates there were 179 positives, while outside the positives there were 110 per ten thousand people; in February 2021 there were 91 positives for every ten thousand inmates, while outside the ratio was 68 positives for every ten thousand people. In addition to the deaths of the inmates, there were twelve of the prison police officers. In the story of Erio Pettinari we find the limits of a system that was unable or able to protect neither those who worked there nor those who were locked up. Telling it from the beginning helps to understand why.
The first time in the cell and the disease
As a young man Erio Pettinari had worked as a street vendor in a local market in Rome. In the 1990s he had lost his license and started stealing cars and reselling them with changed number plates to earn a living. In 2001 and 2011 he was convicted of receiving stolen goods, but since these were not particularly serious crimes and short sentences, his sentences had been suspended.
In 2013, however, he had been arrested red-handed while he stole a car and had entered prison for the first time, awaiting trial. But there was little left in Rebibbia. He complained of excruciating pains in his head, caused by the rare syndrome he suffered from, the Arnold Chiari, a cranial malformation characterized by the descent of the lower part of the cerebellum into the spinal canal, so as to cause the reduction or blockage of the passage of cerebrospinal fluid.
“There are no medicines to cure it, it can be asymptomatic or lead to severe headaches, difficulty walking, numbness in the hands and feet, perception of electric discharges all over the body”, explains Carlo Celada, president of the Italian Syringomyelia Association and Arnold Chiari. “It’s a disease that can make everyday life difficult”. Celada says that “for those who are symptomatic it is difficult for the problems to pass, most of the time they bring with them a disease that worsens with age”.
Reading Pettinari’s medical certificates it seems that his illness was marked by this trajectory. He was also symptomatic, in 2007 they had operated on his head to try to alleviate the symptoms, but his health was constantly worsening. When he first set foot in Rebibbia he was 54 years old and, given the pain, after a few months he had been given magnetic resonances. The results had convinced the magistrate first to transfer him to house arrest and then, in February 2014, to release him pending the final sentence.
Furthermore, Arnold Chiari was not the only disease he suffered from. Over time he had had to deal with hernias and ischemias. In 2018, after losing a 25-year-old son to lymphoma, physical suffering was added to psychological suffering, with memory lapses and difficulty speaking. Medical certificates speak of “severe reactive depressive syndrome”. For his pathologies he had a disability of 67 percent, but in 2020 he had asked for an aggravation.
He did not have time to receive the answer because in the meantime the final sentence had arrived, and so on the night of 19 October 2020 Pettinari ended up in prison again, this time in Orvieto. In addition to the four years and ten months for the 2013 crimes, the Attorney General had also reinstated the sentences that had been suspended in the past, and so for the cumulative sentence the years had increased to eight.
Pettinari collapsed and after just a week in the Umbrian prison he attempted suicide. It wasn’t the first time he tried to take his own life. Everything suggested that alternative measures to detention could be granted, but this was not the case.
The contagion in Italy
Meanwhile, in all prisons in Italy the infections multiplied in a worrying way. To avoid the worst, the ministry of justice has approved a series of measures that have reduced preventive detention and made it possible to finish serving sentences for minor crimes at home or in the community. In total, in the year of the pandemic, inmates increased from 61 thousand – for about 47 thousand places available – to 53 thousand.
But the measures, in addition to generating a lot of controversy, have not solved the problem of chronic overcrowding of prisons in Italy, and so the infections at the end of 2020 have grown.
In mid-October 2020, when Pettinari was taken to Orvieto, the positives in Italian prisons among prisoners and agents were about 200. In December of the same year, almost two thousand. In February 2021, when an outbreak broke out in the Umbrian structure, more than a thousand.
The outbreak in Umbria
In Orvieto, things began to precipitate on February 20, when 13 people tested positive for the swabs: eight prison police officers, four inmates and a doctor. Within a few days there were 47 cases, 22 among prison staff and 25 among prisoners, two of which were serious. Erio Pettinari was one of them. He was initially placed in solitary confinement because he had been in contact with a positive. “The quick swab was negative, then they did the molecular”, says Daniela Ernesti. “He kept complaining. When we spoke on February 26, he was sick but he still didn’t know he was positive ”.
On the evening of February 27, Ernesti receives a call from the Terni hospital: her husband arrived by ambulance after they found him unconscious in his cell, with blood on the ground. “He has a liquefied lung,” a doctor tells her. “I have never been able to talk to him or see him again. He spent three weeks hospitalized, then on March 22 he died, ”he says. When Ernesti reaches the hospital, the coroner confirms her death from covid-19.
Erio Pettinari is just one of the many coronavirus deaths in Italian prisons. Scrolling through the list of those who did not make it, you come across stories of all kinds: an 82-year-old inmate with chronic diseases died in the Livorno prison; a 76-year-old, heart patient, diabetic and with lung problems did not make it to Bologna; a 56-year-old was terminally ill but spent his last days at Opera. And so on, in a count that concerns prisoners who are twice vulnerable to the virus, because in many cases they are elderly and sick.
“Prison is a place where people generally get sick, it is a pathogenic place, and the health conditions of the prisoners are worse than those of free citizens”, says Claudio Paterniti, researcher of the Antigone association. “Health also depends on socio-economic conditions, and in prison they are almost all poor and with low education rates. Covid-19 has aggravated an already difficult situation. We were faced with the need to balance the right to health and safety requirements. The most common solution was to keep the detainees in cells, while more recourse could be made to alternative measures. Let us remember that the constitution speaks of a plurality of penalties, but too little has been done ”.
Since the pandemic broke out 18 people have paid the consequences, dying. Paradoxically, Pettinari is not counted among them. On March 5, while he was in hospital, the surveillance magistrate in fact issued a request for release. And so, formally, Pettinari died as a semi-free man, that freedom that the family had been asking for for some time precisely to avoid the worst.