Italy's migrant jails are squalid and chaotic. A young man from Guinea was desperate to escape

ROME (AP) — It was still dark and quiet outside when Ousmane Sylla performed his last prayer in the courtyard of an Italian migrant jail.

“I miss my Africa very much and my mother too,” read a scribble in French on the wall nearby. ”May I rest in peace."

A few moments later, the silence of dawn was shattered. Chaos took over the detention and deportation center of Ponte Galeria on the outskirts of Rome as other inmates discovered the body of the 21-year-old Sylla, who had apparently hanged himself.

Sylla had landed on Italian shores the year before, one of tens of thousands of people who pay migrant smugglers hundreds or thousands of euros to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. He had no visa, and had been ordered to leave after admitting that he had lied about being a minor.

Fellow detainees who discovered his body screamed for help and frantically tried to resuscitate him. When paramedics finally arrived, Sylla was gone. Enraged by his death, migrants set mattresses on fire, broke down doors and threw stones at security forces inside the jail. The riots led to the arrest of 13 people.

Sylla’s death in February shined a spotlight on the conditions inside these de-facto jails for migrants, which have been condemned by lawyers and migration activists as “black holes” of human rights violations. And yet the far-right government, led by Premier Giorgia Meloni, vowed to build more such facilities across the country as well as abroad.

“I want to send a clear message to those who want to enter Italy illegally ... it is better you don’t do it and you don’t put your life in the hands of smugglers,” Meloni said in a video posted on social media last year addressing would-be migrants. “And in any case, if you enter Italy illegally you will be detained and repatriated”.

The Italian government says the centers, which were established in 1999, are essential to deterring migrants like Sylla from risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe.

The centers are meant to detain those migrants who enter Italian territory without a visa, are not entitled to apply for asylum and are labeled as “socially dangerous” by law enforcement authorities. Earlier this year the Italian government extended the time foreigners can be detained, from 90 days to 18 months.

Sylla’s chances of being deported were minimal because Guinea has no repatriation agreement with Italy. He wanted to return to Guinea, he told officials, yet a judge extended his detention.

He had dreamed of a better life in Europe. Now he just wanted to go home.


Sylla’s journey from the West African nation of Guinea to Italy began in 2022. One of seven children, he dropped out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic after his family could no longer afford the fees. He learned masonry but his real passion was singing. Sylla posted videos of himself on TikTok rhyming and gesturing his hands like a rapper.

“His dream was to become a big star, that everyone would say his name, and he would sing for everyone,” his older sister, Mariama Sylla, said from the family’s modest house in the outskirts of the capital, Conakry.

He had never shown any signs that he was mentally unwell, his family said.

“He was strong. He was brave. He loved our entire family. He can’t do it, he can’t do it. He can’t leave us like that,” Mariama repeated in despair.

To get to Europe, Sylla crossed the Sahara through Mali, Algeria and Tunisia, always calling his mother and sister to keep them updated on his journey. They sometimes wired him a little money when they could, and Sylla worked small jobs to pay smugglers along the way. He made his way to the Tunisian coast, where smugglers move thousands of migrants from northern Africa to Europe on rickety boats. This Central Mediterranean route is known as one the deadliest migration crossings in the world; more than 2,500 people died or went missing last year alone.

After nearly drowning in the Mediterranean, Sylla finally reached the Italian island of Lampedusa on July 29, 2023. Again, he called his family to tell them he had made it.

But his odyssey through the Italian migration and asylum system was only beginning.


Sylla was trying to join his older brother, who lives in France. But when he reached the border town of Ventimiglia on Aug. 9, 2023, he was rejected by French authorities. After lying about his age in the hopes it would increase his chance of getting residency, Sylla was sent south, to a center for underage migrants in the town of Cassino.

But the place that was supposed to look after unaccompanied minors was violent and dysfunctional, his brother and witnesses told AP. During his time in Cassino, Sylla told them he was repeatedly beaten up by other migrants and felt unsafe. He sometimes left the center and sought shelter with neighbors who told AP that police were frequently called in to resolve scuffles.

According to witnesses working at the center, the facility lacked basic services such as proper clothing, psychological support and translators. Food deliveries, pocket money and mobile data cards were scarce, creating tensions among the young residents.

“He told me he was in danger and that he was surrounded by really bad people and that they wanted to hurt him,” Sylla’s brother Djibril Sylla told AP in Rome, where he traveled to identify Sylla's body. He last heard from his brother on Sept. 27.

In audio messages sent to employees that were obtained by AP, the Cassino center’s director, Rossella Compagna, insulted the facility's residents, calling them "a hassle," and threatened to punish them or throw them out into the street. But she said the center needed them: each placement brought in money from the government.

The center was shut down for lack of proper staff by the Cassino social services office. Michelangelo Soli lawyer of Compagna, the director when Sylla was held, said her comments referred to several violent guests, and that despite shortcomings, Sylla and others weren't mistreated.

Desperate for help, Sylla attended a local municipal council meeting on Oct. 6. He repeatedly raised his hand for a chance to speak but was never given the floor. After the meeting, he eventually caught the attention of local councilor Laura Borraccio.

“He lifted his shirt and actually had some bruises,” Borraccio, recalled. “I asked him what those bruises were and he replied that they had been from daily arguments that happened within the center with other guests.”

She said Sylla, who was very agitated but not violent, showed her videos of screaming inside the center and admitted he was not a minor and was desperate to be transferred elsewhere.

“He was very upset and the only thing he said was ‘help me ... Please I want to go back to my country’...He said there were bad people in Italy and didn’t want to stay here any longer,’” Borraccio recalled.


A few days later on Oct. 13, Sylla received an order expelling him from the country. One day later, he was transferred to a detention and deportation center in Trapani, the first of two migrant centers where he would spend the last four months of his life, according to Dario Asta, a lawyer who assisted Sylla.

Giuseppe Caradonna, another lawyer who tried to assist Sylla, said that’s when a psychologist first flagged his mental health issues.

Caradonna informed local authorities on Nov. 14 that Sylla’s mental and physical conditions made him unfit for detention and requested his transfer to a facility where he could receive adequate medical and psychological attention.

“Ousmane Sylla continues to maintain a conduct that is completely incompatible with the conditions of the center, probably due to mental disorders resulting from traumatic experiences to the point of putting him at serious risk,” Caradonna wrote in his communication, which included a psychologist’s report describing Sylla's aggressive behavior, both against the workers and other detainees.

But the transfer request was denied and on Jan. 5 his detention was extended by a judge for three more months.

“I don't understand why nobody told him to apply for asylum in Cassino”, regretted Gaetano Pasqualino, the lawyer who is now representing Sylla's family. “The application would have prevented him from being detained and would have given him more time."

A fellow migrant detainee from Guinea-Bissau said that Sylla was taking daily medication provided by a doctor at the Trapani facility. In late January, when a riot broke out in the center, burning most of it, both of them were transferred to the Ponte Galeria detention center near Rome.

As Sylla boarded the bus that would transfer him, a doctor handed him his case file, urging him to show it to staff at the new center so he could get proper care.

“She kissed Ousmane on the head and told him ‘Everything will be fine,’” the Guinean man told AP under the condition that his name not be published over concerns about his legal status.

But there is no evidence that the file was ever seen by any professional at the Rome detention center and Sylla was never seen by the center's psychologist. The center, managed by an international detention and reception company called ORS, wouldn't comment on Sylla's treatment, but their contract confirms they had a responsibility to provide psychological care to detainees.

Four days later, the young man took his own life.

Sylla’s family in Guinea learned of his suicide via a Facebook post 10 days after he died. They hadn’t had any news of him in months and had been worried.

At that time, communicating with the outside world was almost impossible for migrants at the Ponte Galeria center. Mobile phones weren't allowed, and only one public phone was shared by dozens of migrants.

“We were never informed he was in a detention center. Never. That’s not normal,” his sister, Mariama Sylla, said. “He had the right at least to call his family and tell us.”


Enclosed by tall metal bars, detainees at the Ponte Galeria center near Rome, where Sylla died, walk around in circles and kick balls to pass time. Their days are cadenced only by breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a few medical appointments and sporadic detention hearings. Unlike normal jails and prisons where inmates work, learn and do other activities, in Italy’s temporary migrant centers there’s only boredom.

“There’s nothing to do there: you just wake up, eat, go to sleep, day after day ... People accumulate lots of rage, lose their minds, because they have no hope left,” said another former detainee from Tunisia. Like many other detainees who spoke to AP, he asked to remain anonymous fearing repercussions on his application to stay in Italy.

Some of them described how many migrants hurt themselves in a desperate attempt to be released from the centers. Videos from inside the center reviewed by AP showed some of those self-harm attempts, including two detainees using an iron bar to break the ankle of another resident with his permission. His screams could be heard throughout the cavernous facility.

Although the Ponte Galeria center's management allowed AP a rare visit to the facilities, they declined to answer specific questions about the conditions of the residents and Sylla's time there.

Italy currently has 10 such migrant centers across the country with a capacity to hold 700 foreigners under administrative detention at any one time. Two of them, including Trapani’s, are closed for upgrades. Only months after the death of Sylla, mobile phones without cameras were allowed in, and the public health service said it will provide a psychiatrist three times a week at the center.

In theory, the aim of the centers is deportation. But according to Interior Ministry data, only 52% of migrants in detention centers are successfully expelled. The rest are eventually released with a self-expulsion order, unable to work or regularize their situation. Many fall into the underground economy or become prey to criminal groups.

“The (detention and deportation) system is a catalyst for failures,” said Maurizio Veglio, a migration law expert active with the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration, an advocacy group.

"That's because the final outcome of the repatriation process depends mainly on the will of the migrants' country of origin to cooperate with Italy. And, often, their decisions are based on all different kinds of political reasons, which have nothing to do with the behavior of the detainees," he said.

Rights groups and human rights lawyers have for years denounced and documented squalid conditions inside the migrant jails, including the lack of adequate health services, overprescription of psychiatric drugs to keep detainees sedated, and limited access for their lawyers and relatives.

From 2019 to 2024, 13 people had died - five by suicide - inside Italy’s detention centers, which also registered hundreds of suicide attempts and self-harm episodes.


Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi has insisted that the expansion of the network of deportation centers is a “fundamental element” in the government’s overall migration strategy, stressing that the difficult conditions in them are the result of riots and vandalism by detainees.

“There is no intention to deny any human rights, but in these centers are people who (...) present conditions of danger that have been confirmed by judicial authorities,” said Piantedosi, who has defended the migrant detention centers' effectiveness.

Italy is also trying to outsource detention to third countries. Last year, the government signed a deal with Albania for the non-EU country to hold thousands of asylum seekers on behalf of Italy. Under the five-year deal, an Italian detention center in Albania would shelter migrants rescued from international waters who would normally be taken to Italian ports. It's not clear how the system will be implemented, and the construction of the centers in Albania is undergoing major delays.

But the novel approach has sparked curiosity of a majority of other European Union member states who called for similar arrangements earlier this month. The bloc’s new Migration and Asylum Pact also strives to speed up asylum procedures and deportations of those not eligible to stay in the EU.

With parliamentary elections in the bloc in June, many right-to-center politicians are also eager to adopt a tough stance on the issue for fear of losing even more votes to the likes of Italian premier Meloni and other populists with an anti-migrant rhetoric.

Italy has a very low rate of effective returns: in 2023, only 12% of all migrants with expulsion orders were effectively deported home, well below the 19% recorded in the EU.

“This system is a total failure. Often it doesn’t reach its goal, which is to repatriate as many migrants as possible, while keeping young people in limbo, without any respect for their human rights,” said Stefano Anastasia, an independent regional ombudsman for detainees.


Back in Guinea, Sylla’s relatives blame the Italian government for his death.

“I am so, so angry at them! What they’ve done to my little brother, they abandoned him like he’s not a human being. I’m furious,” Mariama told AP shortly after his burial in Conakry.

She vowed the family would fight for justice with the help of an Italian lawyer. Their hopes are pinned on the ongoing official probe looking into possible “incitement to suicide and manslaughter,” according to Attilio Pisani, one of the Rome prosecutors on the case. So far, there have been no indictments.

“If I die, I’d like my body to be sent back to Africa,” Sylla had written on the jail wall. “My mother will be happy.”

On April 8 his final wish was accomplished. Paid by crowdfunding from activists at the group LasciateCIEntrare, Sylla’s body was flown from Rome to Conakry in a metal coffin. That evening, dozens of relatives and friends chanting “justice” with their fists in the air marched to the airport to receive his remains.

Following Islamic tradition, they removed his remains from the casket and buried him next to his father’s grave the next day. It was Ramadan, just like when he had left, only two years before.

Sylla’s house was then flooded by family and neighbors who came to give his mother Mariam Bangoura their heartfelt condolences. Surrounded by other women from her community, Bangoura wiped tears from her eyes and looked at photos of her son on a cell phone.

“My child was suffering and I didn’t know," she said.

Risemberg and Diallo reported from Conakry, Guinea.