Coronavirus infections surge in Italian jails - guards' union

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises over Regina Coeli prison, as prisoners revolt after family visits were suspended due to fears over coronavirus contagion, in Rome, Italy March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo

ROME (Reuters) - COVID-19 is spreading rapidly through Italian jails, a prison guard union said on Thursday, urging the government to do more to contain the outbreak.

On Nov. 8, 1,265 guards and prisoners tested positive for the new coronavirus, almost four times the 344 who tested positive 13 days earlier, union data showed.

Jails in Milan and Naples were hit especially hard, and guards accounted for almost 60% of all those infected.

Most prisoners have not needed to be admitted to hospital and are being treated in jail, the OSAPP union said.

"We demand that local health authorities check ... that the shared areas meet health standards," it wrote in a letter on Thursday to ministries and officials.

The justice ministry did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.

After the coronavirus first hit Italy late in February, prisons became an immediate concern due to their chronic overcrowding, which rights groups have long denounced as a human rights violation.

Italy's prisons house some 54,900 people, above the maximum capacity of around 50,500, official data show.

Violent riots swept penitentiaries in March after the government imposed visiting restrictions to try to contain the virus. At least 12 prisoners died, many from drug overdoses after raiding prison medical supplies.

"I hope that those responsible for taking immediate decisions do not wait until they become inevitable because of protests and deaths," said OSAPP union leader Leo Beneduci.

During the initial COVID outbreak, the government released some elderly prisoners, including more than 300 mobsters and drug dealers, to relieve pressure in the jails - but the decision triggered an outcry and a prompt U-turn.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League opposition party, has warned the government not to repeat the exercise.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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