Per la libertà di movimento, per i diritti di cittadinanza
Photo credit: Francesca Esposito (CPR Ponte Galeria, Rome)

A man commits suicide in Ponte Galeria pre-removal detention center and a riot ensues

Ousmane Sylla's farewell message reads, "Peace to my soul, may I rest in peace."

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By Nicoletta Alessio and Francesca Reppucci.

On the morning of Sunday, February 4, between 5 and 6 a.m., inside the pre-removal detention center of Ponte Galeria (Rome), a 22-year-old young man named Ousmane Sylla 1 was found lifeless: he hanged himself with a sheet knotted to a grate. He left a farewell message on a wall of his dormitory: a self-portrait of himself, followed by a few lines in French.

Si je meurs jaimerais quon rianvoi mon corps en Afrique, ma mère serait ravie(…)
les militaire Italien ne conait rien saufe largent, mon Afrique me manque beaucoup et ma mère aussi. Il ne faut que pleure a cause de moi, paix á mon âme que je repose en paix
” 2.

If I die, I’d like my body to be sent back to Africa, my mother would be happy(…)
Italian soldiers don’t understand nothing except money.
I miss my Africa very much and my mother too. There’s no need to cry over me, peace be to my soul and may I rest in peace“.

According to reports from other detainees to the political representatives who visited the facility 3, Ousmane had been visibly depressed and desperate for days. Based on statements from the social workers working in the Center, is it possible to speculate the reasons for his action. Suicide can be seen as an extreme act of self-determination: a tragic choice to escape from a de facto non-existence, incongruous with one’s most authentic identity, with one’s dignity, with one’s aspirations 4. For the purposes of this article, we have chosen to respect the complexity behind his act, refraining from putting forward any explanations about what concretely prompted it.

At the same time, the self-portrait he left us, the words he delivered to us, are a call for acknowledging his humanity and history denied by the necropolitics of borders (Khosravi, 2019) that criminalize, imprison, and dehumanize migrants, denying them the right to exist. It is for this reason that we want to retrace his last days and the little information we have about him: because Ousmane is not a number, to which prisoners in pre-removal detention centers and deaths at sea and at the border are systematically reduced, but a person with a history and dignity denied, who cries out for justice.

What we know about Ousmane Sylla

Ousmane was a 22 -years-old Guinean national. Four years younger than the writer, he arrived in Sicily on 28 October, surviving the Mediterranean Sea. He had applied for international protection, receiving a rejection and an expulsion order issued by the Trapani Police Headquarters. Consequently, he was detained into the pre-removal detention center in Milo (Trapani), where just a few days ago the recent riots have made the entire facility uninhabitable.

As a result of this revolt in the Milo Center, we received news that on January 25, some Tunisian nationals were deported to their country of origin; others from Sub-Saharan Africa were released; three people were allegedly arrested for the protest; another 50 were transferred to the Pian del Lago Center, Caltanissetta, from which we received disturbing images testifying to the appalling conditions in which the detainees are held.

Ousmane Sylla was transferred from Milo to the Ponte Galeria Center in Rome, where he had been detained for about ten days and where he eventually decided to end his journey. We do not know much about his personal life or his experience inside the center.

Yasmine Accardo, from the network LasciateCIEntrare, tells us that Ousmane, as often happens in detention centers throughout Italy, was hindered from appointing a trusted lawyer. “He had been in Italy for several months in search of justice and rights that he never obtained. He was locked up, and the violence exerted on him by the system killed him,” says the activist, reiterating the seriousness of the 18 months of detention in a CPR as per the new regulations: “They terrorize those inside, who are not only unjustly detained but also subjected to an endless time inside a place of injustice.” The activists already active on the network assure us that they will soon provide more details about Ousmane’s story and that they will fight, with the help of the lawyers who took up his case, before and after his death, for some form of justice to be done, for him and his family.

The outcry of anger at Ousmane’s death

People detained with Ousmane soon reacted. Immediately, when some of them found him hanging, they tried to help him.

According to a post by Valentina Calderone, Rome’s Ombudsman of the Rights of Persons Deprived of Their Liberty, “his fellow detainees cut the rope 5 and tried to help him by calling the center’s social workers. The man was taken to the infirmary, where they performed resuscitation maneuvers while waiting for the ambulance. When the doctor arrived, however, he could only certify his death.

They did everything they could to contact lawyers and activists outside the center to denounce what had happened 6. In addition to intervening and denouncing, they then staged a heated protest.

According to the press, dozens of them set fire to their own mattresses to set the facility on fire. They also attempted to break down the doors separating the five different areas into which the center is structured. The police allegedly tried to repress them with tear gas and water cannons, but the inmates put up stiff resistance: a real battle cry against violence, abuse, injustice, and the walls.

Some allegedly managed to break through iron grates and reach a parked police car and set fire to it, but the officers soon extinguished the fire. About 30 detainees then allegedly broke stones from the building and threw them at police officers and social workers. There were also some injured officers. Il Corriere Della Sera reports that the forensic team acquired the video recordings to identify the participants in the riot, who would risk immediate repatriation measures.

At the same time, we must wonder how what happened to Ousmane could happen undisturbed, in a place like a pre-removal detention center that is constantly under video surveillance. More generally, we wonder how one can claim to identify and punish responsibility among the inmates when the conditions of the Ponte Galeria Center, as of other pre-removal detention centers in Italy, had long been reported. Indeed, it is precisely the latter that instigate the inmates’ anger and their legitimate expressions of protest.

I learn of yet another death in the pre-removal detention center of Ponte Galeria,” writes Ilaria Cucchi (Avs), vice-president of the Justice Commission of the Italian Senate. “Months ago I filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Rome about that facility, after having visited it with a hidden camera, I deposited the complaint and the video images on the conditions of the center that I had collected, I was then heard by the magistrate but I had no more news (…) I invite the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Rome to shed light on what happened tonight and in general on the living conditions in that CPR because these deaths must not happen again.

“State-sponsored deaths”

Ousmane Sylla is not the only victim of the deadly machinery of pre-removal detention centers. Just to mention the latest events, on the evening of Friday, February 2nd, about ten people detained in the Center in Gradisca d’Isonzo climbed onto the roof in protest. Among them, one fell from the roof, from a height of six meters. On the spot, the helicopter rescue service intervened. At the moment, the detainee, a 34-year-old Tunisian man, is in the hospital in Udine and has very serious fractures. At the end of January, in the Center of Milo (Trapani), more than 100 detainees were forced to sleep in the center’s courtyards, exposed to the cold and bad weather, triggering the already mentioned protests. Complaints, unrest, and violence frequently reach lawyers dealing with administrative detention, but most do not make it to the media, remaining in the shadows.

There is no need to wait for investigations to say that places like Ponte Galeria are totally inhumane. There was no need to wait for the death of a young boy to say that these places must be closed,” continued Valentina Calderone, Rome’s Ombudsman, in the post. Ousmane Sylla is roughly the fortieth victim of administrative detention. Still, the main news channels narrate the facts as if they were isolated, tragic incidents. Most of the violations of the most basic human rights that occur daily in pre-removal detention centers remain in the shadow. The media only become active when someone dies. Instead, what is needed more than ever is a narrative that highlights the systematic nature of the violations of the rights of detained people, highlighting that these are not ‘cases of suicide’, ‘cases of rights violations, but that the case is only one, the ‘pre-removal detention centers case’: the result of a wicked security policy, which denies rights daily and produces deaths and injustice in despair.

It is time for politics, the Home Office, the State, and the Prefectures to take responsibility for what has been happening in places of administrative detention for 25 years now. And so does civil society, which for too long has ignored, without realizing that fundamental rights – and first and foremost that to personal freedom – when they are trampled on for some*, they weaken for everyone“. (No more Lagers – No to CPRs)

Lastly, a call for respect for the young man’s last wishes is emphatically underlined by Yasmine Accardo: “Before hanging himself, he left a message that is an extremely important testament, which we all strongly urge to respect, namely that his body be returned to his country of origin. The body must go back to his country. We will not accept it being buried in Italy. Italy does not deserve this boy’s body, it does not deserve his presence, the presence of a brave boy that the system has killed”.

Meanwhile, an autopsy has been performed on the body, and the Rome Public Prosecutor’s Office has officially opened an investigation for incitement to suicide. Updates will follow soon.

  1. We do not know yet if his family members have been identified and informed. As much as mentioning Ousmane by his personal details may constitute a form of violence if the news reached us before his family, his name has already been mentioned by media and official authorities, so we believe it would be equally violent to silence it.
  2. The text is reported as it was written.
  3. In particular, the Member of Parliament and secretary of +Europa, Riccardo Magi, and the PD Senator, Cecilia D’Elia.
  4. For a powerful reflection on suicide as an extreme gesture of self-determination in racialized subjects, we recommend reading “Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism” by Grada Kilomba.
  5. That is, the bedsheet with which “he made the rope,” in the slang used by incarcerated individuals.
  6. We also remember that communicating with the outside world is extremely difficult: in almost all CPRs in Italy, including Ponte Galeria, detainees do not have the possibility to keep their own cell phones, in complete denial of their right to free correspondence. For further information, please see:  “CPR: il diritto alla libertà di telefonare è davvero inviolabile?” CILD, 2022.