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The gentle anarchist | Charles Miceli

For Charles Miceli, poverty is not a statistic but a reality he meets every day… in the shape of real people who – quite literally – have nothing

james
James Debono
7 May 2012, 12:00am
Head of Caritas's prison inmates programme Charles Miceli (Photo: Ray Attard)
Head of Caritas's prison inmates programme Charles Miceli (Photo: Ray Attard)
Charles Miceli is currently running a Church-owned Caritas home for persons serving a prison sentence who also have a drug problem, which is the case for the majority of prisoners.

As I am shown around the home and meet some of the people who live there, I feel a sense of serenity found in places run by people whose mission in life is to make the world a better place to live in. 

Still, the daily realities faced by Miceli are a reminder that the system still seems bent on making criminals out of vulnerable people.

He points out that many of those in prison have a drug problem and the majority of those with a drug problem have to resort to crime.

"It is nearly impossible to sustain a drug habit without breaking the law. Even very rich people ended up losing everything to sustain their coke habit."

Miceli thinks that these people should not be in prison in the first place, because addiction is a mental condition. Presently, prisoners are encouraged to attend a rehabilitation programme at the end of their sentence.

The Restorative Justice Act encourages prisoners to follow a rehabilitation programme before being granted parole. 

What preoccupies Miceli is what happens to prisoners after they leave the programme and are released back into society.

"In here we pay the electricity bills and for the food and lodging... the problems start when they get out of here and are unable to find a job."

One of the greatest obstacles for these people is the need for a police conduct certificate.

The government recently hinted at a new justice system, which would de-penalise drug possession in a way that these people are dealt through administrative warnings which do not scar their police conduct. 

"Nearly everyone who has been in this house in the past four years has committed crimes like theft, fraud and small trafficking... as it is impossible to sustain a drug habit without resorting to crime." These people will not be affected by the reform.

"I agree 100% that first-time users should not end up with their conduct blemished. But who would employ someone who has been committing crimes for the past ten years and has a conduct the size of book?"

The problem is that this system penalises people who have completed rehabilitation and who return to society only to find all doors closed in their face.

"There is still a lot of stigma on people with a criminal conduct."

Changing this state of affairs is one of the priorities of the newly set up Alleanza Kontra l-Faqar which seeks to combat misconceptions on poverty.

"We want to focus on particular issues which can make a concrete difference in life."

Despite all the talk that social class is a thing of the past, class still matters in determining who ends up in prison.

He gives a simple example of how class matters in real life; that of two drug addicts, one the son of a lowly paid employee and the other the son of someone who is very rich.

"While the former would not afford a lawyer, the latter will hire the services of the best lawyer... will they have the same chances?"

He also points out that while the wealthy are able to afford private psychologists, others have to resort to State services and wait for an appointment.

"There are people who leave here who literally have nobody and nothing, no home, no family... some of these people leave here without any money or in most cases with debts... where can these people go, how can they find a job if they can barely wash themselves?"

One of the big headaches for Miceli and his team is to find temporary accommodation for people who have completed the programme but have nowhere to go.

In some cases these people rely on EU stocks of food, or vegetables donated by a charitable hawker.

It does not even make sense for these people to apply for State subsides for rent, as they have no money in the first place.

"When you rent a place you are asked for two months rent in advance and deposit for water and electricity bills. If you have zero how can you find a place of your  own? How can you say that there are no social classes when you see these things?"

During the past months, mainly thanks to Caritas, poverty is back on the political agenda. But is poverty really increasing or have we simply been ignoring it all this time?

"Poverty has been around us for a long time... perhaps it was more hidden... what might have changed is that the cost of living is higher and so are expectations... while wearing scruffy clothes was acceptable some time ago, this is no longer the case."

Those who blame the poor for their plight anger Miceli. He does not mince words in describing these ideas as "fascist".

"Surely there are those who abuse of the system but these are not poor. They are simply abusers. The poor are a different category."

He also disagrees with those who make the provision of basic necessities conditional on reforming one's lifestyle.

"We want everyone to reform. But if someone is unable to reform, should we simply let that person to die of hunger?"

Miceli is a firm believer that every human being is entitled to basic living standards.

"I think everyone entitled to a roof over their heads, a bed to sleep on and some food... it is simply unacceptable to deny anyone these things."

He refers to a 64-year-old drug addict whom he has known for 20 years.

"For some reason this person cannot reform... he lives in terrible conditions... you might say:  is this not his fault? But isn't addiction a mental condition which some people cannot control?"

Miceli is disappointed by the response of the political class to these social problems.

"We live in a fireworks society... we like the noise of the spectacle and then we go home to sleep... I find it ironic that we talk about precarious work and poverty before the election and thewn forget all about it afterwards."

Poverty remains concentrated in the same localities in which it was already entrenched 20 years ago but no concrete plans have been implemented to address it.

Miceli asks: "Concretely, what is being done to alleviate the conditions of people who presently depend on the EU food supplies distributed by parish priests?"

When I raise my doubts of whether it is appropriate for parish priests to have such a role, Miceli praises the role of the church in giving a human face to welfare.

"Welfare has become very institutional. On the other hand, in many localities one finds priests with a strong social conscience who know these persons personally and do not consider them to be just numbers..."

Miceli is wary of the institutionalisation of NGOs and the welfare system and  a firm believer in the concept that people should help themselves.

"I believe that people should help people. Institutions, although sometimes necessary, tend to grow and become monsters which have to be fed..."

One of the latest initiatives taken by Miceli was the setting up of Emotions Anonymous in Malta.

EA has adapted the 'Twelve Steps'  of Alcoholics Anonymous to create a program for people suffering from mental and emotional illness.

"People help themselves and once they take control of their condition, they can help and give advice to others... seeing and listening to people who have managed to overcome a problem is in itself encouraging."

Miceli considers lonliness as another facet of poverty.

"Many people of a certain age end up closed up in their homes...for some the only kind of socialisation was buying from the grocer but this is no longer possible, as many grocers have closed down due to the growth of supermarkets."

But the best way to address this problem is to encourage people to help themselves.

Politically Miceli identifies himself as an anarchist, not of the violent revolutionary sort but of the peaceful and non violent kind inspired by persons like Ghandi.

But he is avidly opposed to libertarian stands of anarchist thought which would like to remove all shackles imposed by the State to let the rich do whatever they want. 

"I believe in subsidiarity... the idea that the State should not interfere when decisions can be taken at a lower level."

Neither should the State  create quangos to replicate what is already done by NGOs.

"Do they do this to employ their own people? Why shouldn't we encourage NGOs to provide services?"

Some criticise the idea of the "big society" as a way through which the State abdicates on its responsibilities. But Miceli contends that his vision of anarchism is one where decisions are taken at the lowest possible level.

"If a decision can be taken by a local council, so be it and if the local council can delegate the decision to a neighbourhood committee so the better."

james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...