We need a bigger prison

Like the problem of overcrowding at Malta’s prison, for instance… which has once again risen to the surface, after a number of inmates staged an umpteenth hunger strike this week, specifically in protest against ‘cramped conditions’ at CCF

There are two types of people in the world: those who have watched the movie ‘Jaws’… and those who haven’t.

The latter category can generally be recognised at a glance; if nothing else, because they tend to get all excited by the onset of the summer season.

At the earliest opportunity, you will see them making a bee-line towards the nearest beach… where they will strip down to their swimsuits in no time at all, and dive headlong into the sea without so much as a moment’s hesitation.

People who have watched ‘Jaws’, on the other hand, are usually identifiable by their tendency to dawdle awkwardly at the water’s edge for hours; eventually plucking up the courage to dip in, at most, a single toe… only to decide, nine times out of 10, that: nah, it’s just not worth the risk...    
And while you might think it’s because the sea’s too cold, or for fear of stepping on a sea-urchin, or maybe getting stung by a jellyfish… make no mistake: the truth is that first strains of John Williams’ timeless (and terrifying) soundtrack will be playing in their heads; and once you’ve heard that ominous, foreboding sound – ‘Duuuuuh-dah!’ – I can assure you that the sea will never, ever look inviting again.

But the effect of ‘Jaws’ goes far beyond permanently ruining summer for around three generations of movie-goers… even as the film itself is about a lot more than just a giant (and woefully unrealistic) rubber shark.

No, indeed: ‘Jaws’ is ultimately about people, not fish; and again, it happens to be about two distinct categories of people… and the tragic consequences of their failure to converge on a single strategy, when faced with a common threat.

There are those who – like Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) – recognise the problem for what it is, and instinctively understand what it would take to solve it (e.g., a ‘we need a bigger boat’). Then there are people like fisherman Peter Quint (Robert Shaw)… who would sooner smash their own boat’s radio with a baseball bat, than condescend to accept any outside help.

Now: in the interest of not spoiling the film for those who haven’t watched it – i.e., the ones who are merrily splashing about in the water even as I write, entirely oblivious to all the primal terrors that lurk in the depths below – let’s just say that Brody gets proven spectacularly right in the end.

They really did ‘need a bigger boat’.

But what makes that movie one-liner so memorable (apart from the astonishing fact that it was entirely unscripted), is that the words themselves remain so perfectly applicable to so many other situations. Like the problem of overcrowding at Malta’s prison, for instance… which has once again risen to the surface, after a number of inmates staged an umpteenth hunger strike this week, specifically in protest against ‘cramped conditions’ at CCF.

Not, mind you, that the Maltese media actually reported it that way. Judging by the press coverage, it seems there was only one detail that was considered newsworthy enough to even run with in the first place: i.e., that one of the hunger-strikers happens to be Yorgen Fenech, the man accused of murdering Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017.

Inevitably, this detail coloured not only the media’s representation of events; but also the general public’s reactions. And, yet again, these were broadly divided into the same two basic categories:  those who can look beyond the superficial details of the case, and understand that this is a serious, systemic problem that is likely to have dire (possibly fatal) consequences…

…. and those who, quite frankly, can’t.

So for the time being, I will ignore the only detail that has so far been reported in the local press, and instead turn my attention to the underlying problem itself… starting with a few basic observations.

1) Malta only has one prison, which was designed and built in 1874... i.e., when the national population was less than 150,000; and the crime rate was almost negligible (at least, compared to today’s).

2) As of March 2019, the maximum capacity of Malta’s only prison was 617… and to the best of my knowledge, the building itself has not been physically expanded since then.

3) In July 2019, the prisoner population at CCF stood at 660 – considerably higher than the number of inmates the facility could actually accommodate – and that figure is understood to have risen sharply over the past year alone.

4) Malta’s prison population has in fact almost tripled in the past two decades: rising from a mere 230 in 1999, to well over 600 in 2018.

5) In 2016, when the prison population was 555, there were 187 Correctional Officers and 18 policemen, for a total workforce of 207: of which around two-thirds would be stationed at any one time, adding up to a guard-to-inmate ratio of approximately 1:3.5 (already higher than the Council of Europe’s recommended average of 1:3).

So unless the staff complement has been significantly increased in the past four years (note: I have been unable to find more recent statistics) we are now looking at a guard-to-inmate ratio of just under 1:5… i..e., close to double the recommended minimum.

6) The same news reports also suggest that there are currently as many as six inmates per dorm at CCF’s maximum security division: a fact which, coupled with the above-mentioned ratio (and regardless who the individual inmates may be) can only raise serious questions about the level of ‘security’ that can actually be guaranteed in that division. And lastly,

7) The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has repeatedly highlighted both overcrowding, and staff shortages, at CCF as a major cause for concern.

Already, then, it can already be seen that Malta’s prison system is quite simply not up to the task of catering for the sheer numbers it currently has to cope with. And – as anyone who has ever played ‘Prison Architect’ will no doubt confirm – the consequences of overcrowding in prisons are usually very severe.

They might start with a few hunger-strikes here and there… but if the problem is allowed to fester unresolved for too long, it can easily lead to a full-scale riot – at a time when guards may be outnumbered by as many as five to one - or even to inmates simply murdering each other in their cells.

And this, of course, forces me to confront the part that I have so far ignored. On one level, it doesn’t really matter that much whether Yorgen Fenech is one of those hunger-strikers or not… or even what his real cause for complaint might be.  Maybe it was (as reported in the press) simply a case of objecting to the colour of two of his cell-mates’ skin… or maybe the issue really does boil down (as argued by his family/legal team) to serious complaints about the conditions of detention.

Either way, however, we are still beset by the undeniable fact that Yorgen Fenech – the alleged mastermind behind Daphne’s murder; and therefore, obviously a ‘high-value’ suspect in the ongoing trial – is currently sharing his living space with anywhere up to five complete strangers: all of whom are either convicted for serious crimes, or awaiting judgment for the same.

Without even pausing to consider the human rights angle, that is – or should be – completely unacceptable, even just from a prison security perspective. And strangely enough, most people seemed to understand this perfectly well, when – just a few weeks ago – Malta awoke to the shocking news that Melvin Theuma (the middleman in the same murder case) had inflicted multiple knife-wounds to himself, whilst supposedly under police protection.

On that occasion, the police were lambasted for failing to adequately protect a prime witness in a major murder trial. How much more, then, would the prison authorities be criticised… if we suddenly awoke to the news that Yorgen Fenech was found murdered in his own prison cell?

Can you even imagine the effect something like that would have on the ongoing trial – and with it, the prospect of ever reaching closure in the Daphne Caruana Gaizia murder case - not to mention the international headlines such a shocking story would no doubt give rise to: e.g., ‘Murder suspect found dead in prison… weeks after main witness attempted suicide’?

But those considerations are ultimately secondary, compared to the more glaring danger lurking so ominously beneath the surface. That problem has less to do with Fenech himself, than with the fact that Malta’s prison system clearly risks being overrun by sheer numbers, with potentially catastrophic effects.

And faced with a problem of this magnitude, there are only two possible responses to consider.  We can either emulate the wisdom of Police Chief Martin Brody, and conclude that… well, it’s right there in the headline…

… or else, we can follow the example of Peter Quint: and under-estimate the extent of the problem to such a degree, that we find ourselves literally devoured by it in the end.

So… um… what’s it going to be?