Solitary confinement is torture: it has to go

This newspaper can only back the public calls for a thorough reform of the prison system: a reform which would hopefully consign such archaic practices to the dustbin of history, where they belong

It would, perhaps, be premature to discuss the full implications of the latest casualty of Malta’s prison system – a young woman, who died in custody after having attempted suicide last June. But it is certainly not premature to conclude that something must be very rotten in the state of Corradino.

Without going into the merits of this latest case: Malta’s prison seems to have a disproportionately high rate of inmates dying under similar circumstances. Just last April, a Council of Europe report suggested that Malta experienced both the highest growth rate in incarceration between 2019 and 2020; and also, the highest suicide rate in prisons out of the whole of Europe: at 25.2 per 10,000 inmates.

And yet, this revelation did not (as one would realistically expect, in almost any other country) prompt the government to – at the very least – order an investigation into the current administrative practices in place at Corradino.

Now, even the news of yet another statistic to (apparently) add to that list, has seemingly been swept under the carpet. While a magisterial inquiry was duly appointed into the latest fatality: there has been no visible attempt to get the bottom of what is clearly a problem at the very heart of Corradino.

All this, it must be said, is also happening at a time when the same prison administration is also the subject of allegations of human rights abuses – including complaints about ‘punishment chairs’, and other practices used for the purposes of ‘instilling discipline’ (or, as the prison’s own director put, it in a note to welcome new inmates: ‘to teach fear’).

Naturally, one can understand that a prison, of all institutions, would certainly need to instil and maintain a desirable degree of discipline: and also that the allegations against any prison director – which, if true, would amount to ‘torture and degrading treatment’ – must be fully investigated.

But in view of both the severity of the allegations themselves, and also the damning statistics: it is quite frankly unconscionable for the government to persist in its attitude that no such problems exist at all.

Elsewhere, one does not even need an inquiry, to establish that certain aspects of Malta’s prison system are, in themselves, both antiquated and indefensible.

As pointed out by Andrew Azzopardi, dean of the University’s Social Welfare Faculty: the practice of Solitary confinement – even though widely regarded as a human rights violation – is still maintained in Malta’s prison system. Indeed, the law permits inmates to be isolated, both as part of a criminal sentence; and also, as a punitive measure to be used at the discretion of the prison management.

Clearly, this is wrong. And it is indeed remarkable that such an obvious statement even needs to be made at all, in today’s world: ironically, characterised by such heightened awareness regarding mental health issues in Malta.

Solitary confinement is, in itself, a form of torture. It involves being locked up in an isolated setting with limited external stimulation, and in physical conditions which are often severely degrading (and even physically harmful). Moreover, there is a substantial evidence that individuals subjected to Solitary confinement experience significant detrimental effects on their physiological and psychological wellbeing.

Such effects include the obvious severe damage to the individual’s emotional state, but also significant physical changes in the brain itself: among other things, greatly increasing the risk of anxiety and depression (the latter, in particular, being not only a major life-threatening condition: but also a rather obvious risk in any prison setting).

And all for no tangible benefit, either. For as Azzopardi pointedly observes: “locking prisoners up in solitary confinement for hours will not make Malta any safer, but rather makes inmates more vengeful.”

Naturally, one must be cautious when forging any link between the continued application of Solitary confinement – as a method of ‘teaching inmates fear’ – and the undeniable fact that Malta has the highest rate of prison suicide in Europe.

But it is not a connection that can simply be ignored, either.

As for cases where it may become imperative to isolate a particular inmate – due to posing a threat to their own safety, or that of others around them -there are other ways to deal with such cases, without violating human rights.

Moreover, in such cases it would be preferable to assign priority to the Mental Health Act, instead of the Prison Regulations. This would effectively necessitate that the decision to place a prisoner under restrictive care, would no longer be under the discretion of the Prison Director.

This, too, is another reason why such practices are abhorrent: they place far too much power, in the hands of a prison management that – for the present, at least – seems to be free from any form of direct scrutiny.

For these and other reasons, this newspaper can only back the public calls for a thorough reform of the prison system: a reform which would hopefully consign such archaic practices to the dustbin of history, where they belong…