Italy: government looks to reverse flood of mafiosi leaving jail over coronavirus

ROME (Reuters) - Elderly mobsters recently let out of jail over fears they might catch the new coronavirus in Italy’s overcrowded prisons may soon be put back behind bars, Justice Minister Alfonso Bonafede said on Wednesday following an outcry.

Some 376 mafiosi and drug dealers have been allowed to leave jail since March and placed under house arrest after officials decided that inmates aged over 70 could be released if they had health issues that made them vulnerable to the virus.

Amongst those allowed to return home were Franco Cataldo, 85, member of an infamous gang who strangled and dissolved in acid the 15-year-old son of a turncoat in 1996.

In an effort to quiet growing dismay over the mass release, Bonafede told parliament his ministry was drawing up a decree that will let judges put the criminals back in their cells.

“Judges will be allowed to review … the release of high security prisoners in light of the latest health situation,” Bonafede said, referring to a recent decline in coronavirus cases which has eased concerns of mass flare-ups in prisons.

Italy’s death toll since the outbreak came to light on Feb. 21 now stands at 29,684, the third highest in the world after the United States and Britain.

Bonafede said any decision concerning the release of mobsters would now also take into account the opinion of anti-mafia prosecutors.

Riots swept Italy’s prisons in early March as the pandemic first took hold, with inmates angry over restrictive measures imposed on jails to contain the virus.

Subsequently officials moved to thin the ranks of the prison population, extending leniency to the likes of Rocco Santo Filippone, a boss with the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta crime gang accused of ordering police killings in the 1990s.

Maria Falcone, the sister of murdered anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone, said mob bosses should never have been put up for release, regardless of their health.

“They must remain in prison and under isolation,” she told la Repubblica newspaper on Wednesday.

The decision to free the mobsters was taken by judges using guidelines put forward by the prisons department, and the justice minister could not directly intervene. However, opposition politicians have attacked him for not moving sooner.

The row has come at a bad time for Bonafede after leading anti-mafia prosecutor Nino Di Matteo accused him this week of withdrawing an offer to take charge of the prison system because mob bosses had spoken out against his appointment.

Bonafede, who is a member of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, has denied the charge, saying he had instead asked Di Matteo to head up another powerful post that Falcone had once occupied. He said this offer was rejected.

The 5-Star has made the fight against the mafia a pillar of its credibility and Di Matteo’s accusation, which refers to decisions taken in 2018, sent a shockwave through the party.