Paper doesn’t blush
Yes, to my own surprise and after 52 years of looking at such places incredulously from the outside, I’ve spent 1 year, 2 months and 10 days in prison.
But this fact – and also the fact that I am 100 percent innocent (you don’t need to believe me but I keep fighting with my lawyer through all available courts for my rehabilitation) and none of my constitutional rights were respected – does not shock me. At least not in retroperspective.
What shocks me, and keeps tormenting my mind even now when outside of bars since a good 4 months, is how easy, seamlessly and not found in any way worth of discussion by most citizens of so called civilized and supposingly democratic societies, my basic human rights – and those of the many others who still have to survive my not so distant past imprisonment – have been blatantly violated before, during and even after my stay in what is often considered Europe’s worst prison.
In over one hundred years, apparently, officially, nobody ever made it out of Poggioreale before his day of release. I cannot fully believe this, but it’s a fact that Poggioreale is quite save. The architect of this prison committed suicide – he hanged himself – after realising that the prison he built, in which suddenly his own son became an inmate, was so safe.
Two months before I was released an inmate made it out. Very old school like. This became official news. While I personally think such must have happened before, but officials kept it under the carpet.
In Poggioreale, nicknamed ‘The Hell of Naples”, I was not surprised to ‘meet’ violent inmates, real criminals as in murderers, organised crime members and other with serious mental issues, I was surprised to find that the Italian legal system, from police to judges, prosecutors and prison management, does not – in the least – care, respect or much less defend any kind of concept regarding human rights.
My primary feeling was that of a deleted number. That ‘deleted number’ feeling as made me produce an inter.doc, a combination of interview and documentary, with my own self – possibly the only one who cared – about my experience.
Julian Assange – another (mad) journalist?
But the shock still remains. And like a sustained grand piano sound, in keeps lingering in the air. Television, the only information medium allowed in this hell, showed one day how Julian Assange, whistleblower journalistic helper of Wikileaks, was brought out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and escorted into a waiting police car.
I have interviewed Julian and assisted to a press conference he gave in Geneva, Switzerland. That now seems – too – many years ago. In reality, the man I have interviewed is not the man I have seen on television that day. The man in Geneva was a strong, upgright, proud, fighting one.
The one I have seen for a few seconds in TV in an overcrowded cell in Poggioreale while eating cheap, often half-rotten ‘food’ one lunchtime was a broken, small, tired man. And worse, to me it seemed like he had already become a crazy man.
And I seem not the only one having remarked this change. Assange was heavily psychologically tortured, the UN special commissioner for human rights recently said.
Now some may be of the opinion that Julian Assange acted illegally, or is some kind of traitor. I don’t agree but respect other opinions as in free speech – and free thoughts. My real problem is that exactly this free speech and free thoughts which should even more apply to individuals concerned with journalistic work, seems to have been a valid motivation to break a man like him.
Accused by Sweden of rape (to be precise of not agreeing to use a condom which in the special laws of Sweden is considered a form of rape), and worried that those accusations where only a pretension for extradition to the US, he thought and found asylum on the Ecuadorian Emassy in London. Interesting to note that those rape accusations disappeared into strange air as soon as the asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy was removed by some new Ecuadorian politician and Julian was escorted to jail.
Now I do not want to pretend that my jail experience and his jail experience are similar. Or that the way I was psychologically tortured by the ‘system’ and his are the same.
Innocent or criminal – it makes no difference
But I am also a journalist, I was in prison for a reason I am fully convinced to be innocent, and my human rights, exactly as his, were disregarded, made even fun of – exactly as his.
I have been working – part time, or as much as my financial situation would allow – as a journalist for the last 15 years. My journalistic work was and most possibly will remain for the foreseeable future, non-commercial, unpaid and fully self financed. Not because I really find this the best way to do things, but because the special interest areas I like to report on tend to not align with editorial constraints.
And during this work, I’ve seen and felt my share of intimidation by both government and corporate ‘agencies’. And as I learned more and more about reality – not the blurred, children rated lies society’s propaganda mediums proclaim – I also understood that we all, while called citizens, are in reality just numbers.
Birth numbers, staff numbers, social security numbers, military staff numbers, hospital patient numbers, unemployment numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, passenger numbers, tomb numbers – or, in some instances – inmate numbers.
Numbers that can be removed, temporarily or permanently, at any time from the system. For no reason at all.
That, in my view, is the basic reason human rights as a concept exist – and have been signed in the scope of the United Nations definition of them by most ‘civilised’ nations. And having them and purporting to respect them as one reason society can relax, watch TV, eat in a nice restaurant, walk in the parks, sleep well. Because the individual, the one human being, the one number, is nicely held in the believe that there are some human rights, like the right no not be held captive for no reason, the right to legal defense, the right to medical assistance, the right to a minimum of space, the right not be tortured, neither in soul nor in body, do indeed exist.
This article is about reality. And reality is not about human rights. Reality, at least where I was held captive, in the largest federal prison of Italy, does not care for human rights – at all. One example of this fact is the existence of the ‘famous’ cell zero.
Cell zero, torture and murder. Who cares.
But where is the public outcry? And even if ‘Cell zero’ in Poggioreale is a proven fact, even if this sound, feels like a huge Human Rights scandal, even if those are new that should make the headlines, where is the massive media attention? I had trouble finding more than a handful of mentions on Google search. And those where mostly from human rights organisation.
This leads us to a second issue. The media. In Wikileaks case, the media was full of Julian Assange, for some time. And loads of journalists for corporate media were able to write about the importance of what he did, about the government crimes he helped bring to the light and about him and his main whistleblower, Chelsea Manning.
But then, as so often, a recurring pattern of mainstream media, the attention died, the coverage of Assange went smaller and smaller, until…
And exactly this is part of the problem. Not every citizen is careless, emotionless, indifferent. Human rights are indeed important and even essential to civilisation to some. And what the big names media often does, is overreact. Report until those emotions die down. Then bring the words to the grave. As soon as attention of the public dies, the media reporting seems to die too.
And that is one of the problems with human rights. Human rights die too. They don’t die on paper, those UN conventions are still signed documents by the highest dignitaries of participating governments and similarly part of the basic legal constitution of many countries – including such like Italy – but they die in reality.
Human rights are, as the father from the catholic church told me – in his way – with what I felt a sarcastic smirk when he put a huge book titled ‘Prisoner Rights’ on a small table in a small office I met him in Poggioreale, just words: “Here are your rights”.
What he really meant was, take this book with you up to the cell and be the laughing stock of your fellow inmates or just shove it into your ass. It does neither matter to me or to anybody else in here what is written in there.
Law and order. Or populism and fascism.
When they arrested me – for a crime I did not commit, but this is another story, police didn’t give me a chance to read the accusations, they beat me up as a group of seven and they didn’t bring me a lawyer even after many requests. When they brought me to court and sentenced me I had no lawyer and no translator and was not in any way informed of my rights. But only when I arrived in my cell – slowly and over the first weeks and months of imprisonment – I realised what having no rights really meant.
Now the problem with human rights is not how well they worded, and the same goes for nice words in respective constitutions – but how much they are upheld. Or if. And the problem with media is not that it does not report often on ‘deleted numbers ‘ (and deleted numbers we both are, Julian and me, as are many, many others held captive all over the globe) but that the citizen, in majority, believe that the media would report if those basic rights are just on paper that does not blush. Our modern and civilised societies are used to delegation. Responsibility in the case of human rights is delegated to governments, judges and the media. The duty of the journalist is to report if they are abused, the duty of the judge to respect them, the duty of the government and of the executive forces to upheld them.
But this is not reality. In reality, once you are in prison those rights are gone. Theoretically you should not be tortured or killed or left without any medical assistance. But in practical terms, you are just an inmate number with – in the best case and based on your financial possibilities – with access to a private lawyer who actually cares about your case as the only means to defend your rights.
And this lawyer is part of the system. He has to feed his own family, keep his right to exercise, not upset the judge or the prosecutor too much – and he also gets used and kind of conditioned to the reality of the system. A good lawyer in Italy – and I met, among bad ones, quite a few – would say: “Yes, I know that the police is fascist” or “This prison is a horrible place” or “I don’t like this system, but I have to play by the rules”. But the citizen who has the chance to – still – live in comparative freedom and who possibly has a remaining believe in an existence of human rights, expects an outcry. An outcry that does not happen.
The reason is that we all, and this is even more acentuated for people whos work is to defend human rights, have to make a living. The lawyer needs to make a living, the (in Italy not so common) law abiding and not corrupt policeman has to keep his job and keep thus quiet and the journalist cannot write on what he thinks is important – but most comply with the newspaper view. Follow the money – as always.
Just numbers. Just useless eaters. Just…
Thus what shocked me, and keeps shocking me today – also in memory of the many innocents and small time criminals incarcerated for ludicrous amounts of drugs or for tiny things – is not the reality that human rights are essentially words of people, which I kind of knew before – but the realisation at how quickly those theoretical rights can be removed from you.
It remembers me a bit the feeling when I lost some work and thus my badge and seeing those people walk eagerly with their batches around. Oh, I realised, you are not one of them anymore. And more, who are you now? But worse. This time it was, you were once a citizen. You had some rights. You at least imagined so. And now?
In Poggioreale, which is possibly the oldest prison of Italy and defintely not considered a nice one, human rights became exactly what the official from church made apparent. Words. Just words. I saw inmate with massive heart problems, with tumors that deformed their body, with cancer that got no medical treatment at all. I had to eat food that made many sick and some dead. I had to experience inhuman treatment, psychical mainly but also psychical torture firsthand. I had to hear nearly daily the siren of the dead, a distinctive sound that filled the hallways when people died. I had to see suicides. Had to experience people going completely mad right in front of my eyes.
And I am not saying that all the staff in Poggioreale where bad people. “We know that most inmates are innocent and that the real criminals are outside enjoying their lifes” a couple of elderly prison guards with sad eyes told me while sitting in their office and after being offered a well appreciated cigarette. “You’re right” the lady from the government agency supposed to guarantee human rights in Italian prisons said when I told her that fascism had arrived in Italy. Only that she left and never came back. “Patience” many told me, “just have patience”.
Yes, I had patience and made it out alive. But I was lucky. My thoughts are with the many captive in prison, mental hospitals and other official and unofficial institutions around the world. And I do not have a problem with somebody having committed a crime going to prison. At all.
But I do have a problem with human rights not worth the paper they have been written on, with their signature not meriting the respect of the ink used. I have a problem with lies. And in that sense I do see parallels between Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and me. We both became deleted numbers. And this happened in the very middle of civilised societies. And nobody seems to care.
And we both are in essence just slaves of the system. Not citizens. And never were. The concept of citizen is a shame in itself. It is a well known fact that governments kill people. They have their bodies for that kind of work. And it is a reality that the status, the dignity, the freedom – and all rights, can be taken away from the unsuspecting citizen anytime.
For any reason.
Where even the lawyers suffer
What a shame that in the case of Poggioreale even lawyers had to go on the street to make abuse of human rights public. But again, how many news reports is one able to find of this? One?
And what does it change? In Italy, television is full of uniforms. Military tells you the weather – really – archived police cars are shown 70% of news footage time and a populist government is telling the citizen how hard the system fights for justice. Government, the media and politicians are working hand in hand to convince the Italian citizen both of the existence of heavy crime (need of security) and of the perfect state (justice, police, military) doing their best to eliminate it.
Excuse me? In Italy? Reality is that I met multiple small time drug dealers incarcerated for many years. OK, this is up to society how much they want to criminalise people which where found with minimal amounts of a soft drug. But in Italy, where the cargo ships with tons of hard drugs pass the coast each night, where every construction site, many companies and even hospitals are infiltrated by organised crime and work hand in hand with officials, how does imprisonment for nearly 4 years for a man found with 2.5 grams of Haschisch sound?
In Poggioreale, there was no medicine. The only thing they had was pain pills. Whenever asked, the answer was: No money. The problem is that a huge amount of money goes into Poggioreale each year. And the question is, where does it disappear? What society does, according to my observation in an exponentially increasing way, is conveniently look away. Not only the guards, the management, the judges, the prosecutors, even most lawyers, conveniently look away from the myriad of human rights abuses committed against Poggioreale’s, and as I understand against most of the over 72000 prisoners in Italy – but also the media and – trusting the media or finding trusting them convenient – the citizen.
Human rights in Italy? Just a dream
Apparently, the EU human rights court in Strasbourg and even the EU parlament, after many complaints, was unable to look away anymore. Both complained multiple times that the Italian prison system was inadequate.
In essence, the existence of torture and human rights abuse in general is known to the UN, to the EU court and to the EU parlament. Since many years.
And now? This is the problem. Now – nothing. Nothing will change. Assange is a traitor I heard from some. That he deserves whatever happens to him. While I can live with the traitor opinion, because in the end we all have different viewpoints and should all be allowed to have them, what do some mean by ‘and he deserved it’?
Do accused merit to be sentenced without lawyer, translator, being beaten up, forced to sign unread documents? Do inmates in prison merit to die because of inexistent medical assistance, rotten and contaminated food or by guards that lose their temper?
Does Julian Assange merit to being broken down completely, going sick and mad, being forgotten just for offering a platform on which government crimes were published?
In our modern societies, delegation is common. Responsibility for the poor is delegated to state welfare. For human rights abuses to the media. The ‘normal citizen’, afraid to lose his job, afraid of crime, afraid of complexity, afraid of so many things, but in essence just afraid and thus pretending to not be interested, delegates responsibility to the media. And if, as in Italy, the media (apart from few exceptions and of those quite a few closed down now with populist, right wing governments) does not report on violations of human rights anymore, what then?
Well, in Julian Assange’s case, in my view a combination of 2 US ‘slave’ states all too eager to comply, England and Sweden and a media that lost interest sadly and interestingly very quickly, left a once strong fighter an old, both mentally and physically handicapped man. His rights don’t matter – in the least. They don’t matter to the media and by extrapolation they don’t matter to the citizen, who seems to have delegated all his conscience to media and government.
He got what he deserved. And me? And you?
Thus ‘he got what he deserved’ seems a dangerous statement. Has not every fascist, dystopian system used similar concepts? Does somebody who, purposely or really, commits a crime deserve anything? Do we collectively base human rights on… what?
But I am not writing this to complain about the concept of human rights. I am not disliking any constitution or law. I am writing this to express my sadness at the fact that those things are not values.
But remain words – that don’t blush – on paper, written with ink wasted, if they are not upheld. A society that collectively looks away, at Assange, at me, at the ones tortured in cell zero, at the ones still walking around with cancers and tumors each day in the courtyard of Poggioreale – is not a civilised society.
A civilised society respects human rights. A civilised press reports on human rights abuses. A civilised police upholds them. A civilised judge remembers them. And a civilised prison does not destroy the last bit of them.
Thus in my view society, systems, citizens are in no urgent need to create more good looking laws, sign more conventions, condemn with more rhetorical alarm. But to respect. To upheld. To take action.
Not just protect the upstanding citizen – or pretend to. But make sure that we are not just reduced to numbers, and get used to it – but remain humans. And get treated as such.
Also in a situation of weakness. The once strong man Julian Assange looked very weak and frail to me on TV. “He deserved it”?. Why?
Did Poggioreale’s inmates deserve to die of bad food, of absence of medical treatment or, worse even, in cell zero?
And did I deserve to be incarcerated with no lawyer, no translator, no documents – after being robbed 3 times in the previous days. Did I deserve no visits, no phone calls, no contact to friends and family?
Of the many inmates that die each year in Italys prison system only few are reported correctly. The number system is still at works. Stasticically most inmates die in the ambulance. It is an open secret in prison that reports can falsified to make statistics look nice.
Because, after all, we are all not citizens, we are numbers. Or not?
Last year, in Italy, there were nearly 1200 suicide attempts and over 100 suicides in prisons. Others died of bad food, of inadequate medicine, by guards or by other inmates.
I made it out alive. My innocence is not proven and maybe never will. One of the few friends left – of the ones that did not judge me or cheat me while behind bars – said to me: “You have to go to the Human Rights court. This is an injustice. You need to fight for your right”.
Indeed, I have to. I would have to. I should. But it’s not easy. Most people may believe that I deserved it. It does not matter to them if I am innocent or a criminal. They just delegate. If the judge says so. If police says so. If the government says so.
And fighting for one’s right is both expensive and risky. In Poggioreale, the ones that made appeal while in prison often got to stay even longer. The state does not like to be criticized.
It is not as simple. Getting your right means having a voice. That Julian Assange is currently suffering in a UK prison, probably soon to be extradited to the US and condemned to a life sentence, is not a question of moral innocence. He just played with forces that are angry now – and stronger than him.
That is why we would need a strong media. Journalists that are not afraid. And strong lawyers. A strong and truly civilised system.
What we get instead is pretention.
Politicians pretend that human rights are upheld. Police pretends to defend the law. Judges pretend to be impartial. And prison pretends that a cell zero is ok.
We get pretentions. Faked signatures on worthless paper. Not only does that – hopefully – not represent humanities civilisation level but its a shame. Its a shame to talk and not take action. Its worse than to not pretend anything.
“He deserves it”. Sure, Julian deserves it. I deserve it. And, who knows, maybe tomorrow, you’ll deserve it…