Prison shouldn’t be a death sentence

A young woman died on 4 July. A 29-year old who might have been your daughter, or mine. She died because she took her own life after having been thrown into jail for two years for theft. She died because she was a drug addict who was hideously let down and abandoned by those who were charged with caring for her.

If anyone doubts that Malta’s criminal justice is in total crisis, this should help hammer home the reality. Such stark and ugly contrast with the sentence passed on the two architects whose negligence and greed caused the death of Miriam Pace. Two years’ jail for stealing a few phones, no jail time at all for stealing a life.

I can’t help wondering how the magistrate who jailed her, Doreen Clarke, feels now, especially after her colleague Joe Mifsud’s extraordinary justification of his failure to incarcerate the two architects: that a prison sentence would have been like taking “revenge”.

As a drug addict, this young woman should not have been thrown into a prison cell and left there to rot. She should have been in a drug rehab programme. Indeed, she had asked for one. Instead, she was plunged into an institution that under the directorship of the notorious Colonel Alexander Dalli is rapidly turning into the stuff of monstrous hallucinations.

She was then, according to prison reform activist Peppi Azzopardi, left to suffer through the agonies of the dreaded “cold turkey” – and was clearly not monitored closely enough or assisted to get through such a nightmarish experience.

She should have been getting constant medical help, both physical and psychological. Drug addiction is an illness with many faces, especially drug addiction that is suddenly and completely cut off from any supply of the substances it craves, or the substitutes used to help addicts recover.

Instead, she was forsaken by those who owed her a duty of care. According to news reports, the last time she’d been seen by a psychiatrist was a whole two weeks before she died. This psychiatrist claims she’d shown no signs of wanting to kill herself during that visit; whether this is true or not will hopefully emerge during the investigation, but either way, he or she failed her, utterly.

Dalli has been described as a “sadistic disciplinarian” who’s “militarised” the prison. And reports from within the jail accuse him of brutality, of using torture on inmates, strapping them into a “punishment chair” and throwing them into solitary confinement – and then taking journalists on a strictly-controlled “guided” tour to listen to them, from outside the cell doors, crying for their mothers.

It’s truly the stuff of nightmares. How this could happen under a supposedly Labour, welfare-oriented governing is beyond understanding. But then Malta’s pseudo-socialists have barely even bothered to pay lip service to their supposed ideals in the past eight years.

Dalli was appointed prison director in 2018 and, by all accounts, found an institution riddled with violence, drug-taking and vermin. His admirers credit him with tackling the toughest of problems, eradicating inmate violence and introducing more mental health support for prisoners.

Yet somehow, more inmates in Malta’s prison die while incarcerated than anywhere else in Europe. Somehow a young 29-year old, who should have had her whole life ahead of her if only she’d been given the help she needed, is allowed to reach a state of such total desperation that she committed suicide.

Prime Minister Robert Abela, asked during a streamed press conference yesterday what action he would take against Dalli after this latest tragedy, said that he has complete confidence in the man running Corradino prison.

This individual, on whose watch at least 12 prisoners have died, either by suicide or from mysterious and unexplained conditions, is the subject of a host of inquiries into his conduct as prison director. Twenty-six prisoners have died in the last eight years – putting Malta at the top of EU charts for the highest per capita number of suicides in prison.

And yet Abela, so clearly and totally out of his depth that he’s drowning fast, has full confidence in him. Over and over again, Abela compromises himself irrevocably by choosing to do or say the wrong thing. On this occasion, he was clearly uncomfortable when he was asked the question about Dalli, but still, he repeated his mindless mantra, trotted out for every scandalous incidence, every shocking event orchestrated by his government members and officials.

“I have full confidence in him/her. There’s an inquiry underway. I’ll wait for the conclusion of the inquiry before making any decision.”

Therese Commodini Cachia and Karol Aquilina, in a press conference about the Standards Commissioner’s report into Rosianne Cutajar’s misdeeds, once again asked the question many of us have been grappling with since Abela first won the PL leadership election.

What is the hold the cabinet ministers, MPs and officials have over him? Is he being held hostage by something they know about him?

Abela’s face, when asked what he was going to do about the prison director accused of being a sadistic fascist whose negligence in caring for the inmates has led to the death of a young woman who was crying out for help, demonstrated just how cornered he must feel.

Tight, closed, clenched, his stock reply spat out staccato-style, it was the response of a desperate man, a man with his back to the wall, a man completely and utterly out of his depth. Paralysed with fear of angering one of his puppet-masters, he chooses every time to do nothing instead of taking the hard decisions to act.

But when a prison sentence can so easily turn into a death sentence, we can’t allow him to continue compromising the safety and lives of people entrusted to the care of this out-of-control prison director. Abela must act this time, and he must act fast. Any further deaths in prison will be his direct responsibility, for having failed to make the right decisions at the right time. Bloodstains are still the hardest blemishes of all to wash off.

                           
                               
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Lawrence Mifsud
Lawrence Mifsud
3 months ago

“Full confidence” in totally failed institutions.

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