It’s a prison, not a personal fiefdom

Though not immediately related to any of the previous prison fatalities – most of which took place on Alexander Dalli’s watch – the attitude exhibited by the prison director clearly amounts to an abuse of the power he wields

On Thursday, Malta awoke to the news of yet another mysterious, unexplained death at the Corradino Correctional Facility: this time, a 25-year-old inmate, of Pakistani nationality, who was discovered lifeless in his prison cell. 

This is the eleventh fatality to have occurred at Malta’s only prison over the past two years. The cause of death has yet to be determined; and a magisterial inquiry is under way. 

But while it would be imprudent to jump to any conclusions, at this stage: it is clearly unacceptable that both the prison authorities, and the Home Affairs Ministry, have so far refused to divulge any details to the press – or to the victim’s family, or even to the lawyer representing his case. 

Even such simple requests as the victim’s identity, the crime for which he had been imprisoned, or the specific conditions under which he was being detained – for instance, whether he was alone in his cell at the time of death – have so far been withheld from the press. 

Meanwhile, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri has consistently avoided answering media questions, on the pretext that ‘a magisterial inquiry is ongoing’. 

This would be unacceptable, even if this were a unique, one-off occurrence. It goes without saying that the State has to take full responsibility for the lives with which it is entrusted by the criminal justice system; and the unexpected death of a young, healthy inmate who had no known pre-existing conditions – and had (according to his family) never exhibited any suicidal tendencies, never took drugs, and never reported any health complaints – can only raise serious questions of the current state of Malta’s prison regime. 

However, the fact that over 10 prisoners have been found dead in their cell over the past two years – and that the results of the respective inquiries were never made public (indeed it is unclear whether they have even been concluded) – only reinforces the suspicion that this latest inquiry is (yet again) being used by government as an excuse to shirk responsibility. 

The incident also raises questions about the current administration of CCF. Director of Prisons, Lt Col. Alexander Dalli, has recently been accused of intimidating a lawyer representing Yorgen Fenech: the prime suspect in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder trial. 

In a heated exchange that was captured on CCTV, Dalli reportedly told the defence team: “I don’t give a f*** about the court. I own this place, I take decisions around here, and everyone has to obey me.” 

Though not immediately related to this, or any of the previous prison fatalities – most of which took place on Dalli’s watch – the attitude exhibited by the prison director clearly amounts to an abuse of the power he wields, in that position. 

The Corradino Correctional Facility is a prison; not a personal fiefdom. But if Lt Col. Dalli insists (unlawfully) on assuming ‘ownership’ of the entire institution… then he also has to assume direct responsibility for whatever happens in that facility. 

Nor is the recent spate of unexplained deaths the only question that he now has to answer for. Lt Col. Dalli has also boasted that he had “eradicated drugs from prison”; but this claim is at best debatable. 

In October 2019, then Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia revealed in parliament that there were at least 14 drug finds in Malta’s prison during the first eight months of that year.  

Even if the boast could be substantiated, however: one must also question whether there is any link between this crackdown on illicit substances, and a sudden spike in prison fatalities (in some cases involving suicide; though even this detail is still awaiting official confirmation).  

The aim of ‘eradicating drugs from prison’ is, in itself, a commendable objective for any correctional facility. And one can also understand the insistence on a military style of discipline. 

But it remains a fact that Malta’s criminal justice system also incarcerates people who suffer from drug addiction: and sometimes, specifically because of their drug habits. CCF cannot, therefore, live up to its aim of reforming drug addicts, without also providing the therapeutic care and counselling offered by a real rehabilitation facility. 

Above all, however, the prison management – and the government to which it is answerable – cannot so lightly brush aside the demand for clarity and transparency in what is, at the end of the day, a public institution wielding tremendous power over the life and death of so many people. 

This newspaper therefore understands the sentiment of the Chamber of Advocates: which has called for Lt Col. Dalli’s immediate suspension, pending an investigation into what appears to be an abusive – and deadly – prison regime. But we demand answers from the home affairs minister himself, Byron Camilleri, whose demure demeanour on such matters of domestic security seems so unbecoming of a government minister.