The ‘Brunelleschi’ detention centre in Turin opened in 1999 as one of the first centres specially designed for the purpose of detaining non-nationals awaiting identification and removal from Italy. At the time of its opening the centre had a capacity of about 88 people (64 men and 24 women), who could be held for a maximum of 30 days. Officially, it can currently hold up to 210 men for 180 days. The effective capacity however, is lower than that, as some detention units are (totally or partially) unusable due to damages caused during migrants’ riots.
Located in the neighbourhood of Pozzo Strada, between Santa Maria Mazzarello street (where the entry is located) and Brunelleschi avenue (from where the centre takes the name), close to the historic centre of the city, Turin’s detention centre is the sole immigration detention facility currently operating in northern Italy. As the Human Rights and Migration law Clinic (HRMLC) noted, this institutions is: ‘geographically a bus ride away from the parks, piazzas and coffee shops of Turin, and yet still seems a world away’.
The area where the detention centre lies was a military area belonging to the Cavour barracks, particularly a former firing range of the Genio Ferrovieri regiment. Initially, the centre was made up of 12x3x2.5 m sized containers, where both the dormitories of the detained migrants (men and women at that time) and the staff offices where located. In May 2008, following criticisms raised about the inadequacy of the previous structure, the renovated facility, with roughly the same architectural arrangement, opened its door.
The centre has historically been managed by the Italian Red Cross, which maintained its role until January 2015. Afterwards, the management was taken over by a consortium composed of the French company GEPSA (a leader in prison industry service management) and the Italian cultural association Acuarinto, which also managed Rome’s Ponte Galeria detention centre for a while. They won the tender by means of their more economically advantageous bid: they asked 37.86 euro per day/per detainee, roughly half the previous cost of 73.65 euro.
Despite referring to the detained migrants as ‘guests’, the Turin centre currently looks like a high-security facility springing up in the middle of a residential area. The austere and carceral layout, where military officers guard detainees and stand in-between them and the staff, has recently been criticised also by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), which has invited Italian authorities to reconsider the centre’s emphasis on security (paragraph 62). The facility, which is surrounded by a high brick wall, is composed by a main building at the entrance – where administrative offices and services, such as legal advice, are located – and a large area protected by high metal fences where migrants are confined. This area consists of six detention units, each one separated from the others by bars five meters high and corridors. The detention units, which are divided by a central football pitch, are named with different colours: the Violet Area, the Yellow Area, the White Area, the Red Area, the Blue Area and the Green Area. As mentioned above, over the time, some of these areas have been temporarily closed down or underused, because of the damages caused by detainee protests.
In each detention unit there is a courtyard and two buildings: one is where the dormitories are located, five in every area, and the other is a common area used as a canteen as well as a space for detainees to pray and socialise. In these common room there is also a sink and a telephone, even if often they are not usable. Each dormitory has seven beds and a toilet, which is not separated from the bedroom by any door or curtain. There is no privacy, as a detainee interviewed by the HRMLC complained:
‘We are seven people in one room, with one toilet and no windows. There is no air conditioning. There’s a smell from the toilet so we always keep the door of our room open. We also sleep in the night leaving the door open, but the smell is always there. I don’t blame anybody in particular in my room for this, it is normal when you have seven people all together in such a small space.’(p. 37)
The National Guarantor for the rights of the persons detained or deprived of liberty, in his last Report on immigration detention, has expressed serious concerns regarding this situation, arguing that it ‘goes against the postulate of “absolute respect of the individual’s dignity”’. In the same report, the Guarantor strongly condemned the restriction of movement imposed on detainees within the Brunelleschi centre. Though the men are free to circulate within their detention units, they are not allowed to leave these areas and go to the main building where administrative offices and services, including legal advice, are located. In addition, people detained do not always have the opportunity to talk to staff members and expose their needs as during certain periods of the day staff do not enter the detention units, but only approach from outside the fences. For any request or complaint migrants want to make in these periods, they are thus forced to stand in the yard and wait – whatever the weather conditions are – for a member of the staff to come. This architectural organisation, as the Guarantor observed, it:
‘sets out a dehumanizing context where access/exercise of rights, of which the detained persons are the holders, translates into the physical demarcation of the power relation between the Centre’s staff and the foreign national detainee who is in vulnerable conditions’ (p. 10).
During their visit to the centre, Doctors for Human Rights Italy (MEDU) were prevented, due to unspecified ‘security reasons’, from entering the detention units and thus were forced to talk to the detained migrants through the bars.
Finally, a number of groups have raised alarm over the area of the facility called Ospedaletto (literally, ‘small hospital’), which consists of a single building divided into twelve segregation cells, with a total capacity of 24 beds. Each cell, which can accommodate one or two people, has a fenced yard and, as noted by the National Guarantor, ‘gives the impression of a zoo like environment’ (p. 6).
According to the management, the Ospedaletto is used for the purpose of medical precautionary isolation, as well as for detainees’ personal safety and sexual orientation segregation. Yet, segregation for disciplinary or security reasons, reserved to detainees seen as ‘troublemakers’, seems to be a common practice, even if no specific provision currently exists to regulate the placement, duration, conditions, and safeguards surrounding the use of segregation units or cells inside Italian immigration detention centres (see, for instance, the story of Abderrahim, in ‘Luck Will Save Me’, who spent three months and two days in the Ospedaletto). During their visit in 2016, MEDU reported to have spoken with two migrants who declared to have been isolated in this area for disciplinary reasons, i.e., as a form of punishment. In particular, one man had tried to jump out of the police car while he was being transferred, while the other was found to have a lighter in his pocket. On the same visit, MEDU also met in the Ospedaletto a man facing mental health challenges and another one suspected to be affected by tuberculosis. All these people, who are kept there without access to any activity at all, remarked that: ‘the condition inside CIEs (former designation for Italian detention centres) is much worse than that in prison’ ... ‘In these places (Ospedaletto) you would not even leave the dogs’.
Finally, it is worrying to note that, during his visit in March 2018, the National Guarantor accidentally discovered the existence of four ‘holding cells’ located in the ground floor and basement level of the main administrative building. Nobody had ever informed the National Guarantor, which is also in charge of the Italian National Prevention Mechanism, of the existence of these ‘holding cells’ and the conditions in which he found these latter were deplorable (see Report, page 13).
Over the years, a number of abuses, inefficiencies and serious human rights violations have been reported inside ‘Brunelleschi’ detention centre. As research has documented, people with very different background and judicial situations are detained side-by-side: foreign nationals with criminal records and, at times, directly taken from prison to detention; migrants in a condition of administrative irregularity (e.g., undocumented migrants, visa over-stayers); asylum seekers and other persons victims of violence and torture. Some people have just arrived in Italy, while others are long-term residents with families and children; others again, incredibly, are even born in Italy. This, for instance, was the case of G., interviewed by the HRMLC’s research team. G. was born in Italy from a Moroccan mother and an Italian father but, since his father was in prison at the time of his birth, it was only G’s mother who registered him and put her name on the birth certificate. Therefore, and since Italian citizenship law is based on the right of blood (ius sanguinis), when G. came back to Italy from Morocco, in 2006, he was not able to obtain a residence permit. After a series of difficulties, mainly caused by his lack of documentation and related marginalisation, G. was stopped by the police on the street and detained in Turin’s ‘Brunelleschi’ centre, regardless of his ‘Italian blood’. G. struggled to make sense of his experience of confinement as he saw himself as Italian.
The same research has evidenced cases of detainees who were parents of Italian children (A. and B.’s stories), asylum seekers who faced extremely traumatising situations and whose legal safeguards and rights were not fully respected (E.’s story); people with experience of several re-detentions (B.’s story). Also cases of minors, that according to the Italian law should not be detained, have also been denounced. Overall, and as the National Guarantor has underlined, the heterogeneity of detainees’ backgrounds should be adequately addressed and differentiated pathways should be provided. In a distressing context such as a detention centre is, this heterogeneity can indeed give rise to situations of conflicts and inter-detainee violence, as the CPT found during their visit at Turin’s detention centre.
Different groups and individuals have raised numerous concerns about the poor living conditions inside the facility, the insufficient activities and opportunities for education and training, the scarce hygiene and, above all, the quality of health protection provided to foreign nationals detained inside Turin’s detention centre. In a Report of 2016, Doctors for Human Rights Italy (MEDU) highlighted the lack of multi-disciplinary interventions for highly vulnerable people (e.g., persons facing mental health challenges and/or potential survivors of violence and torture); the difficulty lawyers and other authorised people faced in obtaining information about detainees’ health matters; the lack of cultural mediators and interpreters; and, finally, the excessive recourse to psycho-pharmaceuticals and sleep-inducing drugs within the centre (around 70% of detainees took drugs).
During their visit, MEDU met three men in a very critical condition and whose health status was evidently not compatible with their detention. One of them was a Tunisian man, about 43 years old, who showed a severe mental health suffering. The man, who had been isolated in the Ospedaletto, was under Rivotril's treatment and exhibited psychomotor agitation and suicidal intentions. Despite his dire clinical picture, neither psychiatric treatment nor specialist examinations had been undertaken and, when the man formally requested a visit by MEDU’s neuropsychiatrist, the permission was denied by Turin’s police headquarters. As a result, MEDU concluded the Report by arguing that:
‘the bleak inhumanity of the facility has obvious repercussions on the mental health of those who are detained for administrative reasons, with modes of detention and guarantee of rights that are often worse than those existing in prison.’ (p. 8)
The violation of the right to health for migrants confined inside Turin’s detention centre, has also been emphasised by the most recent HRMLC’s Report. The main points highlighted by this research included the lack of regulation and data-collection obligations regarding the healthcare of detained migrants; problems in the transmission of medical records from prisons to the detention centre and in the accessibility of these records by legal representatives; the excessive bureaucratisation and length of the healthcare process which involves multiple actors who are often not properly trained and do not efficiently communicate among themselves (i.e., the managing body, healthcare workers, the immigration office of the local police headquarters, armed forces); the inadequate treatment, in hospital or detention, of unwell people. This report found that, despite of the existence of a protocol between the ‘Brunelleschi’ detention centre and the Martini Hospital of Turin, the healthcare treatment available to detainees is affected by prejudices on the part of the medical staff who tend to disbelieve their migrant patients. Finally, concerns are raised about the high rates of self-harm among detainees. Indeed, as reported by MEDU in another Report, in 2011 that year there had been 156 cases of self-harm.
Exposing the numerous obstacles to the full, practical and accessible implementation of human rights in detention, the HRMLC therefore concluded that:
‘the human rights violations at Turin’s CIE (as the site was previously called) are so endemic and pervasive that they call into question the very existence of such structures and at the very least require a concerted attempt at re-examining the purpose and intended functions of the CIE and the wide gap between the former and reality. (…) The medical facilities inside Turin’s CIE are woefully inadequate, families are torn apart and the legal safeguards are respected more in the breach. The people inside CIEs are not serving time due to criminal punishment. Rather, they languish in these structures owing to a systemic lack of support from their country of nationality and their country of residence and they are in many ways stuck in limbo: betwixt and between.’ (p. 93)
The authors therefore called for further independent research to assess the conditions inside Turin’s CIE, also in relation to Italy’s obligations to protect people from inhuman and degrading treatment (ex-Article 3 ECHR).
This harsh scenario, which included also recurrent episodes of police violence against detainees (see also here), has given rise over the years to several protests, organised within and outside the centre. Detainees’ voices and acts of resistance – which included fires, escapes, hunger strikes, and in several cases forms of self-harm, including lip-sewing - have usually been amplified and supported by local noborder groups through online news and radio podcasts. In some cases even videos have been disseminated to denounce the very serious human rights violations taking place behind the inscrutable walls of the ‘Brunelleschi’ detention centre.
Protests have also taken place, throughout the years, outside the walls of Turin’s detention centre. Most notably, it was in Turin, in November 2002, where the largest national protest to demand the closure of all immigration detention centres in Italy took place (Galieni 2019). Some protests and solidarity acts have been harshly repressed by the authorities. This was the case of the demonstration organised in July 2019, in front of Turin’s Brunelleschi centre, following the tragic death of Faisal Hossai, a Bangladeshi man who died in the Centre the night of July 7. Faisal, who faced serious mental health issues and had general difficulties communicating, was found dead in his segregation cell in the Ospedaletto, where he had been confined for fifteen-days. According to some of his fellow detainees, Faisal had been sexually assaulted by other migrants detained in the centre, but he had never received any assistance by the staff nor had he been taken to the hospital. Following news of Faisal's death, a series of protests broke out inside the detention centre, which were quelled violently by the police. Activists who gathered outside the walls of the centre in mode of solidarity were also beaten up, including journalists. Sadly, this was not the first time that a migrant died inside Turin’s detention centre: in May 2008 Fathi Manai, a 38-years old Tunisian man, died in his bed, probably due to a pneumonia that was neither detected nor cured by the medical staff. ‘He was in his bed with foam in his mouth – his fellow detainees declared to a journalist - we screamed all night to call for help, but no one came. They treated him like a dog.’ Then too, protests flared up inside and outside the centre, including detainee riots and hunger-strikes.
[the above is constantly updated]