Female prison blues...

Have the conditions at Corradino Prison changed? Now that the law courts (no less) have phrased it so eloquently for us... well, perhaps it’s time for those responsible to actually start answering it

The ruling even highlights details such as: ‘dirty cells having previously been used as storerooms’ and ‘blood-stained mattresses’.... as a result of which they even held a two-day hunger strike.
The ruling even highlights details such as: ‘dirty cells having previously been used as storerooms’ and ‘blood-stained mattresses’.... as a result of which they even held a two-day hunger strike.

Back in 2011, I wrote an article for this newspaper under the headline: ‘Grim reality of Victorian prison conditions’.

It was partly based on allegations of violent mistreatment by a single inmate – later confirmed by a magisterial inquiry – but part of it was also about the general conditions at the so-called ‘Corradino Correctional Facility’. For instance, the fact that the ‘solitary confinement’ block was infested with rats (indeed, that it even existed at all...); that inmates lacked access to basic physical and psychiatric healthcare; that hygiene standards were woefully substandard, resulting in (among other things) regular outbreaks of scabies... in brief, a whole assortment of little and large (mostly large) shortcomings which, taken together, added up to a picture of almost systemic human rights abuse.

The response by the prison authorities was to file five separate lawsuits – one by the prison director, and four by individual prison warders – suing me for criminal libel [Decision: PDF]. Had I been found guilty, I could (in theory) have faced a prison sentence myself... it was, after all, only a couple of weeks ago that ‘criminal libel’ was finally removed from the statute books... and I have no doubt that the prison management would have relished the opportunity to give me a personal guided tour of the premises.

The much likelier consequence, however, would have been a fine of up to €14,000: which is still a pretty serious deterrent in itself. I feel the need to stress this detail, because quite frankly the recent reform of the Press Laws has not, to date, been given the recognition it deserves... least of all, by those who now howl the loudest about ‘threats to freedom of expression’, and all that.

But that was just an aside. Fact of the matter is that the law courts eventually acquitted me on all charges... thus effectively (albeit indirectly) also confirming all the above details as true. This brings me to the part I have never fully understood about court rulings in this country. Perhaps it was naive of me to expect ‘the authorities’ – whosoever they be – to actually take stock of the implications, and to address the fact that Malta’s law courts had confirmed the existence of a serious human rights situation in our only prison complex.

Not just in my case, naturally; more pertinently, the same issues had also been highlighted by another half a dozen or so Constitutional Court rulings... not to mention regular reports by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment.

But naivety aside... what is the more serious legal breach here, anyway? A journalist being found guilty of criminal libel? Or an entire State prison system found to be violating human rights on an institutional scale? (Just thought I’d ask, because the justice system would certainly have kicked into action in one of those scenarios. You’ll never guess which...)

In any case: it is now more than evident that my expectations were indeed hopelessly misplaced. Just this week, the law courts delivered another hard-hitting sentence on Malta’s prison system: and once again it is a ruling that strikes out in two directions.

Much more damningly, those who did transfer to the female section found themselves living in even more filth and squalor than they were used to in the male block

READ MORE: Seven transgender prison inmates awarded €5,000 each in damages for ‘truly disgusting’ treatment

The case in question centred on specific allegations of ‘humiliation and degrading treatment’ experienced by a number of transgender inmates forced to share their living space with men. But in upholding their complaint, Judge Silvio Meli’s ruling also independently confirmed the existence of truly shocking conditions (as ‘grim’ and ‘Victorian’ as they get, in fact) at the female section of the same prison.

Ok, the details are admittedly a little complicated, so bear with me for a second. The complaints themselves stem from both before, and (significantly) AFTER a 2015 reform which allowed transgender inmates to choose between male and female sections. Before, the reasons for complaining were almost too self-evident to even mention. In fact, I won’t bother: all I’ll say is... it’s a prison; so assigning transgender people to the male section, against their will, is nothing but an open invitation for sexual abuse, humiliation and degrading treatment on (again) an institutional scale.

In this case, the court even noted that: “the treatment suffered at the hands of the guards and inmates was ‘truly disgusting’ and did not bear repeating.” The court did not, however, describe it as ‘truly surprising’. To me, the only ‘truly surprising’ thing is that we took until as recently as 2015 to realise that the problem even existed.

Another problem, however, becomes apparent when you realise that the complaints persisted even after this issue had been supposedly ‘solved’.  In 2015, the Gender Identity Bill granted those inmates the possibility to move to the female section. But to actually make that choice, they found they would have to forgo some very basic prisoner’s rights – including a job (i.e., income), access to events and activities, and above all, educational opportunities.

Much more damningly, those who did transfer to the female section found themselves living in even more filth and squalor than they were used to in the male block. The ruling even highlights details such as: ‘dirty cells having previously been used as storerooms’ and ‘blood-stained mattresses’.... as a result of which they even held a two-day hunger strike.

That is a lot more than just an indictment of the ‘degrading treatment’ experienced by the few individuals who actually took the matter to court. It is an indictment, laid down by Malta’s law courts, of the grisly conditions which clearly prevailed at the female section as a whole, until at least some time during the past three years.

Looking beyond the immediate issue of ‘transgender rights’ – important though that may be – the broader implications become truly staggering. It cannot be that such basic rights were denied only to those newly transferred inmates of the female block: least of all after the 2015 Gender Identity Act. One can only conclude that ‘job, activity and/or educational opportunities’ – while apparently abundant in the male section – are lacking (or non-existent) for female inmates in general.

I’ll concede that there may even be logistical (though hardly justifiable) reasons for this: the total resident population at the female wing has never actually exceeded 50 in the last few years. On the other side of the gender segregation barrier, it has been consistently upward of 500 ever since 2009.

Clearly, 500+ men with nothing to do can cause a heck of a lot more problems to a prison administration, than around 37 women in the same predicament. And who knows? Maybe current labour market conditions really do make it harder to provide job opportunities to a handful of women, than to an abundance of men.

Having said that: I see no reason under the sun why ‘educational opportunities’ should likewise be harder to provide. In fact, I can’t think of any reason whatsoever – and not for lack of trying, either – why the exact same courses/classes should not be equally available to everyone at that facility, regardless of gender... or indeed to everyone, anywhere, in a country where ‘equal access to education’ is a fundamental human right.

As for the hygiene issues, the same logistics work the clean (ahem) other way round. The female section is a fraction of the size of its male counterpart... so small, indeed, that even just a handful of unexpected new admissions evidently caused a management headache (at least one of them had to be accommodated in a disused storeroom). So what excuse can there possibly be, to leave such a tiny place degenerate to such a state that even the law courts recoil from actually describing the conditions?

But I somehow doubt that there can ever really be a good excuse for what can only be described as blatant gender discrimination, touching on some of the most ‘fundamental’ of fundamental human rights. This ruling seems to confirm a discrepancy between treatment of men and women at Corradino, that existed at least until a couple of years ago. Personally, I am unaware of any improvement since then – and even if I am imprisoned, in this ‘Dark Age’ of media oppression we’re all apparently living in... well, I’d be in even less of a position to find out, wouldn’t I? But I’m perfectly willing to give the benefit of the doubt, seeing as the prison management has recently been changed.

The question, however, is whether the conditions at Corradino Prison have meanwhile changed, too. And now that the law courts (no less) have phrased it so eloquently for us... well, perhaps it’s time for those responsible to actually start answering it.

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