Taking over the asylum

In a country where so much still depends on a system of political patronage, this can only raise suspicions of nepotism in the broader sense of the word

30 August 2016, 9:50am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
‘The lunatics have taken over the asylum’ is a popular saying in English, generally used to describe a situation where the people in charge of any given system are themselves considered part of the problem they are trying to solve.

It may be a bit uncharitable to apply the expression to the local law enforcement scenario: but very often, one does get the impression that the people in charge are among the least suitable for the post. It has now emerged that four prison warders, who were imprisoned in 2013 for violently beating a prison inmate, have been reinstated within the prison service. At the very least, this should ring alarm bells to the effect that all is not well within the management of Malta’s only prison.

Perry Ingomar Toornstra, the Dutchman who was serving a 15-year jail term for drug trafficking at the time of his assault, was beaten shortly after trying unsuccessfully to escape: an additional crime for which a further nine months were added to his sentence. He suffered a broken arm and broken ribs at the hands of the four accused men in 2008. The beating was captured on CCTV and the injuries confirmed by medical experts, who even described the impression of a boot-mark in the inmate’s back.

Warders Francis Debono and Francis Meli were subsequently sentenced to five years and three months in jail, while their colleagues Daniel Cuschieri and George Falzon had been sentenced to five years imprisonment for the beating. Last February, the Court of Appeal reduced the men’s punishment to six months in prison, suspended for two years. Ironically, they ended up serving less time for aggravated assault, than Toornstra for his failed escape attempt. 

More worrying still are the long-term implications of a prison system that evidently doesn’t consider brutality to be a handicap to employment. In a reaction, a Home Affairs Ministry spokesperson is reported to have said that as a result of the appeal the four men’s suspensions had been lifted and they had been re-employed at the correctional facility. 

The ministry told MaltaToday that the men were “public officers whose employment is regulated by the Public Service Commission. The Ministry for Home Affairs and National Security, as well as the CCF Management, have to follow decisions taken by the Public Services Commission regarding disciplinary proceedings involving public officers. The persons in question are Correctional Officers and they are assigned duties compatible with their grade according to the exigencies of service.”

As things stand, the only consequence of their crime was the forfeiture of the half-salary, which had been withheld during their suspension.

Meanwhile, the ministry may be technically correct to wash its hands of proceedings by pointing towards the Public Service Commission. But this does not address the cardinal issue, which remains that people have been placed in charge of convicted criminals, when they themselves have likewise been convicted. 

Even on a superficial level, this flies in the face of common sense. How can a person be expected, within the space of a few months, to change role between prison inmate, and warder at the same prison? Replace ‘lunatics’ with ‘criminals’ and ‘asylum’ with ‘prison’, and the situation immediately assumes an aspect every bit as insane as the English proverb.

There are, however, other considerations. One can understand a drive to help former prison inmates reintegrate into society through gainful employment – that is in itself a commendable policy, though it is debatable whether it is pursued in all cases. But to be effective, this policy must be counterbalanced by measures to avoid re-employment in areas associated with the specific crime committed.

If it transpired that a convicted child molester was re-employed in an institution responsible for the welfare of children, there would (rightly) be an outcry. By the same token, it is hard to believe that no such policies exist, to prevent the re-employment of warders convicted of savagely beating the persons in their care.

Here, the ministry’s response raises a separate concern. Who dictates policy in such matters? Certainly not the ministry, still less the prison administration itself. We are told that neither has any option, when faced with a decision by the Public Service Commission. So while Malta’s law enforcement authorities may indeed impose their own conditions on employment, these may be overridden by a higher authority at will.

In a country where so much still depends on a system of political patronage – where knowing people in the corridors of power entails real benefits – this can only raise suspicions of nepotism in the broader sense of the word. One wonders if the former convicts would have been re-employed so easily, had they not formed a part – however small – of the establishment themselves.

This points towards another underlying malaise. As another Cabinet minister recently put it, in Malta there is ‘justice for gods, and justice for animals.’ The above scenario is by no means unique, nor is it limited to the Corradino Correctional Facility. Indeed, one can almost talk of a national tendency to seek (and very often find) some kind of ‘arrangement’ in such situations.