Better conditions sought for Rome’s arrested drug addicts

Da: “” del 13 January 2003

An Italian Red Cross foundation that works on behalf of arrested drug users has launched campaign highlighting the “medieval” conditions in which they are kept in Rome’s police stations. The driving force, the head of the European Red Cross Network on Aids, Dr Massimo Barra, says it is crucial that addicts are not further marginalised.

The campaign, which has included a number of newspaper articles and television reports, is part of Barra’s attempt to advocate a more humane approach towards vulnerable members of society and reduce their stigmatisation.

Barra, one of the most vocal advocates of harm reduction in his country, created the Villa Maraini in 1976. This Italian Red Cross (CRI) foundation – which operates around the clock and employs 80 staff and 80 volunteers – works to improve the lives of intravenous drug users, raising their awareness of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases and supporting them through their addiction. Working closely with the police in Rome, it also seeks to improve the conditions in which arrested drug addicts are held.

In every police station in the Italian capital, there is a secure room set aside for addicts. The police notify staff at the Villa Maraini, who go to the police station to attend to the needs of the prisoner. Since its inception, the Villa Maraini has provided assistance to over 25,000 injecting drug users. “Our strategy is to reduce the stigma that drug addicts face by encouraging a more humanitarian attitude towards the drug problem.

All addicts are different. We cannot generalise,” Barra explains. “We want to show that we can change attitudes towards this disease – because addiction is a disease.” It is this stance, developed and advocated over some four decades of Red Cross work, that led to Massimo Barra being nominated to represent northern non-governmental organisations on the board of the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Barra has led the CRI’s AIDS response for the past 20 years, is an expert adviser on drug addiction to the Italian courts and is also the CRI’s head of volunteers. On the international stage, he has also been the chair of the European Red Cross Red Crescent Network of AIDS and other communicable diseases (ERNA) since 1998. His campaign for better conditions for detained drug users began with an article in the “Messagero” newspaper. In it, Barra urged the Interior Minister to act to stop the “unbearable degradation” in which drug addicts were frequently held.

“I have personally seen the reality of this situation. The conditions in these rooms are very bad, almost like in the Middle Ages. In contrast to the bright modern police buildings, these rooms are like damp, dark, unhygienic cellars,” Barra says. “This is a very bad example for such a civilised country.” There has been no official response yet from the authorities, but Barra says the response from both the public and the police has been very positive.

He praises the “humanitarian attitude” of many police officers. Indeed five members of the Italian police – all world or Olympic sports champions – have joined forces with the Villa Maraini and appeared in an advertisement backing Barra’s campaign. The advertisement has appeared in several major Italian newspapers. Barra points out that the slogan of the World AIDS Conference in Geneva in July 1998 was “bridging the gap”.

It is the central motivation of Villa Maraini. “We have shown that it is possible to cooperate – to bridge the gap between the marginalised and the police by moving from repression to understanding and dialogue,” Barra says.