Prison is no place for the police

The present government intends to continue the questionable practice of keeping two vastly different branches of the law and order department together under one roof – against all recognized norms of good practice in all other serious jurisdictions.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

On Sunday, incoming Home Affairs Minister Emmanuel Mallia paid a surprise visit to the Corradino Correctional Facility in Paola, revealing a number of serious shortcomings in prison management.

Warders were found to be absent from duty, and the punch-clock appears to have been under-utilised (to put it mildly).

As a result it may be difficult to determine who was on duty at what particular time on any given day; and bearing in mind that this is a State-administered penitentiary - where 'bad things' can and do happen - it is simply unacceptable that this level of negligence was allowed to get so far out of hand for so long.

The general public appears to have been shocked by the above revelations; yet there was nothing uncovered on that surprise inspection that had not already been exposed to at least some degree on countless occasions in the past.

Prison has in fact been a source of controversy for several years now. Past administrations have studiously ignored repeated calls (not least by the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Degrading Treatment) to revise work practices; yet not even the emergence in 2011 of a fully-blown drug trafficking network, conducted from within a cell in the female section of CCF, was enough to bring about the necessary shake-up.

The Josette Bickle case which surfaced almost exactly two years ago, in December 2011, should really have sounded a nationwide alarm on the prison situation.

Not only did a magistrate declare in open court that the operation could not have been possible without the active collusion of prison warders... but the minister then responsible for prison disclaimed all knowledge of the incident... only to be contradicted by an erstwhile prison director, who publicly confirmed that he had discussed the issue both with the minister himself, and with the permanent secretary.

Nor was this the only problem to affect the day-to-day management of the prison.

Prisoner population has increased exponentially of late: from a mere 170 in 1995, to more than 700 today.

All this time, the number of warders assigned to guard duty has remained unchanged... which in turn suggests that even before taking the truancy issue into account, the ratio of inmates to warders was already too low.

Given the sheer gravity of the possible consequences of a total collapse in prison discipline (already there have been various suspicious developments beyond the Bickle case - including at least one reported suicide of a vulnerable inmate) it seems that nothing was actually done to improve the situation in recent years.

What little attempts were made to conform to European norms of prison administration turn out under closer scrutiny to have been ineffectual or simply botched. The Restorative Justice Act of 2010, for instance, was introduced piecemeal and inmates were left in the dark as to the precise procedure to (for instance) apply for probation.

Worse still, it emerged that the legislation was rushed to such a degree that all inmates were being encouraged to apply for probation: despite the law itself limiting this facility only to inmates who had already served four years or more of their sentence. Meanwhile, calls to introduce a tailored programme for individual inmates - a sine qua non of prison management throughout the civilized world - simply fell on deaf ears.

In brief, the entire set-up at CCF has been exposed as a shambles. A board has since been set up to investigate a number of other suspicious issues... including why food is being outsourced at considerable expense; and why inmates are being charged more for commodities at the prison tuck-shop, than they would if the same commodities were purchased in ordinary retail outlets.

All these shortcomings and many more have been in the public domain for years now. Yet the same shortcomings persisted, unaddressed, all this time.

From this perspective, one certainly welcomes the commitment and zeal shown by the incoming minister in taking the bull by the horns. But still, the biggest problem remains the clear conflict of roles between the police and the prison administration.

Up until the present, it has been standard practice in Malta - but not anywhere else in Europe - to appoint prison directors directly from the police.

Outgoing director Abraham Zammit - who resigned as a result of the above revelations - was himself a police superintendent. But while the government has accepted his resignation, and has committed itself to replacing Zammit within 10 days, the chosen temporary replacement is likewise a police superintendent.

This choice appears to suggest that the present government intends to continue the questionable practice of keeping two vastly different branches of the law and order department together under one roof - against all recognized norms of good practice in all other serious jurisdictions.

One sincerely hopes this was a mere stop-gap measure until a more permanent replacement could be found from outside the police force (as it should be).

Otherwise, for all the minister's good intentions he will merely be compounding the existing problem, and almost guaranteeing that the systemic failure presently plaguing CCF will be projected indefinitely into the future.

More in Editorial