The minister’s silence on prison deaths

Government’s own failure to publicly address the issue surrounding prison deaths, can only to serve to deepen suspicions that something is indeed very rotten in the state of Malta’s only prison

It is often said that ‘silence speaks louder than words’; and nowhere is this more evident than in Home Affair Minister Byron Camilleri’s belated response about the latest fatality at Corradino prison. For a five-day silence from the man responsible for our prisons, it bears witness to the kind of blandness possessed by certain minister.

Almost a week has passed since Colin Galea became the 13th prison inmate to die since 2018 – this time, as a result of injuries sustained in a suicide attempt inside CCF a week earlier – and still no official statement, or reaction of any kind, has been released. Camilleri should not be a minister if does not have the nerve to face up to the reality of prison suicides and deaths inside CCF. He would be a happier man removed from the responsibility of a Cabinet minister.

This would be unacceptable, even if Galea’s was a one-off case. Clearly, however, this latest case remains but the tip of an iceberg: for apart from what appears to be a spate of (often unexplained) deaths occurring at Corradino, the prison itself has also been rocked by allegations that would – if true – amount to ‘torture and degrading treatment’.

Naturally, one must be cautious before passing final judgment. But even the fact that such allegations have been made in public – so far, without any formal acknowledgement or reply – is in itself a cause for concern.

Simply put, the Maltese government cannot afford to maintain a wall of silence, even when faced with serious situations such as this. Its own failure to publicly address this issue, can only to serve to deepen suspicions that something is indeed very rotten in the state of Malta’s only prison.

Meanwhile, it cannot escape notice that – while the prison situation was never all that rosy to begin with, even under former administrations – things seem to have taken a conspicuous turn for the worse since 2018: when Alex Dalli, a former military colonel, was appointed as prison director.

Dalli himself is at the very epicentre of all the more serious allegations: having been accused of running CCF like a military facility; and having even claimed that the entire purpose of Malta’s prison system was – in his own words – to ‘teach inmates fear’.

One can, of course, appreciate the necessity for discipline, when it comes to running a prison facility. No doubt, many people – including the victims of violent crimes, and their relatives – will even sympathise with that message.

Nonetheless, it is becoming painfully apparent that Dalli has overdone the militaristic approach; and in any case, the prison system itself is ultimately paid for by the tax-payer; who has a clear, vested interest in a fully transparent investigation into its internal operations.

In a word, CCF cannot remain the private domain of its current director: to be administered as he deems fit, with no outside interference whatsoever. This would be unwise at the best of times; but with 13 deaths having occurred over the past three years alone, the stakes have clearly become far too high.

Nor does it help that – while the Home Affairs Ministry remains doggedly tight-lipped regarding individual cases – the government also seems to be ignoring repeated calls, from academics and activists alike, to embark on a much-needed reform of Malta’s entire punitive criminal justice system.

Byron Camilleri did appoint a board of inquiry, led by psychiatrist Anton Grech, which has been tasked with reviewing suicide prevention measures at the prison. Notwithstanding any doubts regarding the independence of certain board members, this was a welcome measure. But it falls far short of the type of far-reaching regime-change that the current prison situation so clearly requires.

To this end, certain proposals recently put together by University lecturer Andrew Azzopardi and journalist Peppi Azzopardi – both vocal critics of the current administration – may serve as, at minimum, a spring-board for a much-needed national discussion.

Reduced to their bare essentials, the 100 proposals are based on a different understanding of what a country’s prison system is, or should be about. If CCF is to really live up to its objective of being a ‘correctional’ – as opposed to purely ‘punitive’ – facility, there is much merit in the argument that it should also be ‘demilitarised’.

Azzopardi is also clearly right, when he argues that solitary confinement – a practice still in use at CCF today - “is a method which dehumanises inmates, and its impact is the same as institutionalised torture.”

And given also that the prison faces serious overpopulation problems – partly as a result of the criminalisation of mostly innocuous offenders, such as illegal or undocumented migrants – the Maltese government must also start giving serious thought to alternatives to imprisonment, in such cases.

There may, of course, be room to question at least some of those 100 proposals: such as, for instance, Peppi Azzopardi’s argument that the prison system should be scrapped in its entirety; but there can be no doubt that the call for a prison reform, in itself, is both fully warranted, and urgent.

But no progress at all, on any of those fronts, can possibly be made when the government seems hell-bent on ignoring the problem, or trying to sweep it under the carpet altogether. This is another reason why the Home Affairs Minister, and his government as a whole, cannot keep silent forever.