Prison should be a place of reform, not retribution

Rights come with responsibilities; and a State which so cavalierly disregards its own accountability obligations – in the face of such serious, unanswered questions – cannot be said to be living up to those responsibilities

Theoretically it goes without saying that, in maintaining a prison system, the State automatically assumes responsibility for the health, safety and wellbeing of all persons in its custody. 

Yet inevitably there is a gulf between theory and practice; and while Malta's only prison can lay claim to having all the necessary safeguards down in its book of rules and regulations, the reality within the walls of the Corradino Correctional Facility seems to paint a different, less reassuring picture. 

Last week, a Maltese man awaiting extradition to the USA over child abuse charges, committed suicide at CCF: becoming the 10th in a series of as yet unexplained deaths (and suicides) that have taken place in the same facility over the last decade.  

Between 2013 and 2020, there were 26 prisoners’ deaths in total: and according to a home affairs spokesperson, 16 of these deaths are listed as “natural causes”, whereas five deaths were caused by suicide. 

The cause of the remaining five deaths are yet to be determined. 

The last death in CCF happened earlier this year, when a 72-year-old man – Gozo murderer John Attard, who in 2010 was imprisoned for the killing of traffic warden Fortunata Spiteri in 2001 – was discovered dead in his cell during the morning call. This was the eighth death in 24 months. 

Before that, a 49-year-old prisoner from Birkirkara was found dead in his cell in November 2019: just one month after another inmate had also died after he was found unconscious by prison guards. 

Not all such fatalities involve suicides; but some raise additional questions of their own. In 2018, a male prisoner died in Corradino Correctional Facility shortly after complaining about feeling ill. The man reportedly said he was feeling sick and asked for pills to ease the pain. Just a few minutes later, he fell unconscious in his cell. 

Inevitably, one must question whether the health services available to prison inmates is sufficient to safeguard their health and well-being. 

These are all complaints that date back several years. But while administrative changes have been effected since then – including the appointment of a new prison director earlier this year – the underlying problem, in the form of a consistent pattern of mysterious deaths in custody, has clearly persisted all the same.  

And not only have the authorities failed to properly respond to this challenge: but for the most part, the Home Affairs Ministry has consistently avoided even answering any of the media’s questions about the issue. 

This has naturally (and justifiably) led to calls for a reform of Malta’s entire prison administration system.  

In a scathing online article, academic and broadcaster Prof. Andrew Azzopardi even suggested that the prison was being run as a sort of “vindictive” colony to satisfy a feeling of retribution for victims of crime. 

Azzopardi published a long list of criticisms, including complaints about inmates being denied medical treatment, over-crowded cells, recreational spaces used for incarceration, and study leave not granted to everyone.  

He also took aim at new Prison director Alex Dalli, accusing him of turning CCF into the “3rd regiment of the Armed Forces”, in an obvious reference to Dalli’s former military career. 

How much of this criticism is warranted remains difficult to ascertain, given the dearth of available public information. But this, too, is cause for concern. Faced with such a conspicuous spike in prison-related deaths, the authorities clearly cannot continue ignoring the elephant in the room. 

In theory, the 10th suspicious death in 10 years should have prompted a public inquiry into the standards of prison management. In practice, however, it was as though nothing had happened at all. 

Besides, Azzopardi has a point when he argues that we cannot simply ignore the ‘correctional’ mission of prison, in favour of discipline alone. For even if discipline is undeniably necessary, in a punitive facility, the aim of having a prison system in the first place is ultimately that of reforming inmates… not merely subjugating them, or – worse still – killing them through negligence, lack of concern, or flawed policies. 

Ultimately, however, the issue boils down to a question of transparency and accountability. We all accept that the State reserves unto itself the right to incarcerate people, both in the name of public safety, as well as to maintain law and order. 

But rights come with responsibilities; and a State which so cavalierly disregards its own accountability obligations – in the face of such serious, unanswered questions – cannot be said to be living up to those responsibilities.