“Christ forgave the bastards, but I can’t!” – Billy Hayes, the young American protagonist of the 1978 film ‘Midnight Express’ who was caught trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey in 1970 and sentenced to 30 years in prison, says these words of the brutal guards who beat, tortured and starved him for five horrific years.
Hayes managed to escape the prison and cross the border into Greece, and freedom, in 1975. He was risking his life in attempting to flee, but he knew he wouldn’t survive much longer in the unspeakable conditions of the jail.
The film is based on a true story, taken from Hayes’ book of the same name. It was filmed, perhaps presciently, in Malta, at Fort St Elmo in Valletta.
I was a young teenager when it first came out, but the scenes of vicious cruelty, both physical and mental, that it portrayed have stayed with me my entire life. I watched it again recently – noticing, once more, that for some reason, several of the policemen and prison guards use Maltese instead of Turkish at random moments in the film.
Forty years ago, this was just a curiosity. Now, though, it was spine-chilling to hear the Maltese words expressing the same type of alleged abuse so many inmates of Malta’s house of correction turned house of horrors have recounted.
The notorious prison director, retired army officer Alexander Dalli, ‘self suspended’ himself this week after the nation was shocked to learn that yet another prisoner had taken his own life. There have been 14 deaths in Corradino in the three years since Dalli was appointed in 2018 – half of them suicides, four from natural causes and three that are still under investigation.
Dalli’s regime was predicated on terror. Activist and broadcaster Peppi Azzopardi revealed that the newly installed director had put up a sign instructing guards to “teach fear” to the prisoners. That sign was taken down after Azzopardi exposed it, but it told us all we needed to know about Dalli.
He, and his few supporters, erroneously describe him as a “disciplinarian”. But of course, bullying and brutality are not discipline. Terror is not discipline. These tactics are used not by ‘strong’ men, but, just as with all bullies, by weak and insecure people.
The atrocious and inhumane conditions to which Corradino inmates are said to have been subjected since Dalli’s appointment have been well-documented, with Peppi Azzopardi and the Dean of the Social Wellbeing Faculty of the University of Malta, Andrew Azzopardi, leading a relentless campaign for radical reform of Malta’s prison system – as well as the removal of Dalli.
Reading descriptions of this man’s behaviour, as he strutted about his mini-fiefdom – lording it over the prisoners like the most ruthless of despots, allegedly taking potshots at pigeons and strapping inmates into a “punishment chair” similar to those used in the Unites States’ infamous Guantanamo Bay facility – is sickening and frightening.
Former and current prisoners have described being put into solitary confinement, sometimes for weeks, and subjected to constant verbal abuse and torment from the guards.
The devastated father of Kim Borg Nicolas Virtu, the 29-year old inmate who committed suicide in June, described how his daughter was put through such extreme mental and physical torment that she made at least four suicide attempts during her two-year incarceration, before her final, and tragically fatal, act – which took place when she had just three weeks left to go on her sentence.
Martin Borg Nicolas Virtu said his daughter had been “driven to insanity” by the relentless cruelty and bullying from warders, thrown into isolation – solitary confinement – for trivial reasons, and specially singled out by one particular prison guard, who did things like kick over the bucket of water just after Kim had finished washing the floor and then order her to do it all over again. They reportedly deprived her of her medication, took away her books, and even her fan.
Two prison officers have been charged with her involuntary homicide. Though – if these are the same warders who reportedly taunted her on the day of her fifth suicide attempt, and after she told them she was feeling suicidal, gave her a blanket and a pair of jogging trousers which she then used to try to kill herself in her cell – then there appears to be nothing ‘involuntary’ about this homicide.
Encouraging suicide, or suicide coercion, is dreadful enough in verbal or written form, as in the case of the American Michelle Carter, who at the age of 17 urged her boyfriend Conrad Roy, via text messages, to kill himself, even after he told her he was scared and had changed his mind.
But the allegation that the warders on duty that terrible day actually gave Kim the means to commit suicide, when they knew she was a suicide risk, and just after she’d specifically told them she was feeling suicidal, has to be much worse even than that – how can knowingly giving a vulnerable person the means with which to harm herself be described as ‘involuntary’ in any way?
Some people are worried that these two officers might become ‘scapegoats’ while Dalli himself will get off scot-free. They’re right, of course, that the ultimate responsibility lies with Dalli.
But as the post Second World War Nuremberg trials proved, if one needed a precedent, ‘just following orders’ is no defence at all. They are fully culpable. Convicting them, if they are guilty, won’t be ‘scapegoating’ at all. It will be justice.
Dalli must be hauled before a judge too, of course. The very idea that he’s been permitted to ‘self-suspend’ himself, whatever that means, is an outrage.
Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri should have sacked him on the spot, referred the case to the police and done his duty to the country by ensuring that no one’s human rights are violated, no one’s lives considered worthless and that the Corradino Correctional Facility is finally transformed into a place not only of punishment but also of rehabilitation. Hopefully, the appointment of the Head of Detention Services, Robert Brincau, to replace Dalli, albeit in an ‘acting’ role, will help bring us closer to that ideal.
But in the meantime, Camilleri’s – and Prime Minister Robert Abela’s – failure to respond earlier to the alarming number of deaths in the prison, and their callous dismissals of myriad reports of the inhumane way prison inmates were being treated, should put them right there in the dock with Dalli and any of the guards found to have participated in this barbaric regime of terror.
Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis) says, in ‘Midnight Express’, that he can’t forgive the ‘bastards’ who abused and tortured him in prison. We should pay close heed to those words. Some things really are unforgivable.