The word ‘custody’ has a meaning

Is there any equivalent set of guidelines governing the local police custody scenario? We are, after all, talking about one of the highest risk-of-suicide situations known to man here.

Police Commissioner Michael Cassar
Police Commissioner Michael Cassar

Generally speaking, it means ‘care’. And care, in turn, implies ‘responsibility’: as I suspect any parent reading this would instinctively know far better than I.

Yet all three of these words seem to suddenly become meaningless, in any situation where the ‘custodian’ happens to be the Maltese state. Not, mind you, that we use them any less. Oh no, we still talk endlessly of ‘persons in custody’, for all the world is there was some sort of ‘custodianship’ actually involved in the equation.

But while we might occasionally talk about the ‘rights’ of ‘persons in custody’, I have yet to hear a serious discussion about the ‘responsibilities’ of the State for their welfare.

Not even when things go horribly wrong – as they have a bad habit of doing: often – the question remains hanging in the air indefinitely. What are the responsibilities of the police for the people they lock up at the depot, anyway? What is the responsibility of the seemingly non-existent prison administration at Corradino – still with an ‘acting director’, two years after the last one resigned over dereliction of duty in 2013 – for the 4,000 persons currently in its care?

Considering that there have been at least four successful suicides of ‘persons in custody’ – not counting any of the reported/unreported suicides among asylum seekers in Malta’s formerly overcrowded detention centres – in recent years, I think these questions deserve an answer. More so now that the latest ‘police custody suicide’ has revealed that not even the most basic, entry-level precautionary safeguards have been put into place following the other cases.

This week, Police Commissioner Michael Cassar addressed the media to announce that a ‘person in police custody’ had committed suicide. In fact, about the only thing we actually know about this individual was that he was in police custody when he hanged himself from the barred window of his cell with a sheet. 

No, wait: we also know that he had been arrested for possession of 13 kilos of illegal drugs… 8kg of cocaine, and 3kg of heroin. That’s not exactly your average Vice Squad raid on a party during Santa Marija in Gozo. I’m no expert on the current street prices of those drugs, but we are clearly talking about a bust worth hundreds of thousands of euros here: quite possibly more than half a million.

Under normal circumstances, that would place the suspect in the category of ‘highly valuable witness’: the type whose information could conceivably expose and bring down an entire criminal network. In brief: NOT the sort of ‘persuna detenuta’ you’d want to have dying while supposedly under your ‘care’ and ‘responsibility’. 

And yet, for some bizarre reason, the victim has not even been named yet; even though his family has already been informed of his death. Cassar kept alluding only to a ‘persuna detenuta’, as though his status as a detainee was more important than his identity.  And even more bizarrely, it didn’t seem to occur to any of the journalists present to ask who this ‘persuna’ actually was. 

Honestly, sometimes I just don’t get it. The same Maltese press that is so quick to name a schoolteacher on mere suspicion (later proved unfounded) of child abuse, seemed entirely uninterested in the identity of a man suspected of involvement in a major drug-trafficking ring… and who died under mysterious circumstances in his cell, only hours before being charged in court (where he would otherwise have been given the opportunity to make public what he might have known).

Seriously: does none of that excite even the remotest flicker of interest? In any other country, the Police Commissioner would hardly be able to get a word in through the barrage of press questions. But I suppose the important thing here is to dutifully repeat what you’ve been told at a press conference, right? Even when, at a glance, it doesn’t seem to make much sense…

For instance: Cassar was reported as saying “that although precautions were always taken and the force was always trying to improve matters, such incidents could still happen….”

Naturally I don’t doubt the last part of that sentence – it is obviously impossible to cut off ALL opportunities for in detention. But the rest of it doesn’t really add up, does it?

Okay, let’s go back over the few facts that have been made public so far. The man was discovered hanging from the window of his cell, by a police inspector who was ‘checking on him’ as part of a routine inspection. It was 3:05am. He was given first aid on the spot, then taken to hospital where he received emergency first aid from medical professionals.

All to no avail: within an hour he was dead.

It is not clear from the reporting whether this ‘hour’ was counted from his admission to hospital, or from his discovery in the cell. In either case, however, it is clear that he was discovered at a point when it was already too late for resuscitation. This suggests that his brain had stopped receiving oxygen for some time before he was cut down. 

What time did he actually hang himself? How long had he been suspended by that sheet before the 3:50am routine cell inspection?

We’ll have to wait for the post-mortem to know for sure, but the other question that arises is more straightforward. What time was the preceding inspection? I half expected Cassar to volunteer that detail on his own initiative. But he didn’t, and nobody thought to ask…

Another point the Police Commissioner should have clarified is… what was an arrested detainee even doing, in a cell with a sheet on the bed and bars in the window? It’s not like we haven’t been through this before: one prison inmate (Barry Charles Lee) hanged himself from an air vent using a belt in 2012. Yet in 2015, current police custodial procedures still involve leaving a man unsupervised in a cell, with all the ingredients necessary to commit a successful suicide, for long enough to tie his sheet in a noose and suffocate himself beyond any hope of recovery.

Honestly: why not just go the whole hog, and also place an ‘Idiot’s Guide To Hanging Yourself’ manual on the bedside table?

Again, I was expecting someone in the room to at least ask: okay, so what were these ‘precautions’ the police claim to have taken? In what way did the force ‘try and improve things’? From the inexcusably scanty information supplied to date, it looks as though there has been no improvement at all. 

Meanwhile – you know, just to rub our collective noses in the sheer dilettantism with which we approach law enforcement and justice issues – the same questions are easy enough to answer in other countries. The British police, for instance, are governed by ‘Guidelines on the Safer Detention and Handling of Persons in Police Custody (Second edition, 2012)’. It makes particularly interesting reading, in light of the above.

Among other things, British police conduct a ‘risk assessment’ of each person they hold in custody, to determine “the risk and potential risk that each detainee presents to themselves, staff, other detainees, and to others coming into the custody suite”.

Such assessment is an ongoing process, because: “The risk that a detainee may pose to themselves and others may alter when a detainee is charged, refused bail or released on bail and, therefore, the custody officer must review the risk assessment at these stages and prior to release or transfer. A record must be kept in the custody record of each time that a risk assessments is carried out.”

Are any such precautions taken by the police in Malta? Are similar ‘custody records’ kept for each detainee? If so, can we see the record of this nameless ‘detained person’?

Interestingly, the UK’s police custody guidelines also observe that: “In custodial settings, hanging or self-strangulation is the most common method of attempted suicide.” 

Precautions are duly taken to minimise this widely-known risk: among other things, no shoelaces, no belts, no ties, no suspenders, no tights, no stockings… and obviously, no sheets either. Nor should there be any appendages – nails, hooks, window-bars, etc – to which a sheet or shoelace could be tied.

Separately, the World Health Organisation has guidelines specifically to ‘Prevent Suicide in Jails and Prisons’. It has this to say: “Most inmates commit suicide by hanging using bedding, shoelaces or clothing. A suicide-safe environment would be a cell or dormitory that has eliminated or minimised hanging points and unsupervised access to lethal materials... 

“Actively suicidal inmates may require protective clothing or restraints. Because of the controversial nature of restraints, clear policies and procedures must be in place if they are to be used. These must outline the situations in which restraints are appropriate and inappropriate, methods for ensuring that the least restrictive alternatives are used first, safety issues, time limits for use of restraints, the need for monitoring and supervision while in restraints, and access to mental health staff…”

Is there any equivalent set of guidelines governing the local police custody scenario? We are, after all, talking about one of the highest risk-of-suicide situations known to man here. I find it hard to believe that the Maltese State would accept the responsibility of detaining people as part of it law-enforcement efforts – and no argument with that policy, as far as I can see – and yet fail to establish clear parameters and guidelines for all the complications that would invariably arise. 

The abdication of responsibility would be too enormous to even contemplate. It’s like… oh, I don’t know: it’s like deciding to bring children into the world, only to leave them run amok unsupervised, exposed to every danger under the sun, without a care in the world…

Even now, when it is painfully obvious that no such guidelines exist… the least the State could do is clarify all the unanswered questions concerning this case. The Police Commissioner’s press statement was almost spectacular in its failure to provide information. It was as Spartan, terse and perfectly unhelpful as the most monosyllabic of police press office communications (eg. “A person was today arrested on suspicion of committing a crime… full-stop’”).

Coming back to the charges this man was facing, and the fact that he would otherwise have been charged in court this morning… and even more so, that Cassar himself did not rule out ‘foul play’, when answering the only pertinent question he was asked… it must be pointed out that the entire incident evokes uncomfortable historic memories, too.

It calls to mind thigs like a police press statement to announce an ‘escape’ from the depot in the early 1980s… only for the ‘fugitive’ to be later discovered dead under a bridge.

I’d rather hoped things would have improved a little since then: that the necessary ‘precautions’ would have been taken, and the ‘improvements’ made. Sadly, it seems we shall have to wait a little while longer.