Court finds prison authorities guilty of degrading and inhuman treatment

Court finds prison authorities guilty of breaching a couple's human rights after inmate was denied marriage leave and punished when his girlfriend gave Xarabank interview

Meliza Muscat told her story to Xarabank and afterwards her boyfriend was punished by the prison authorities in what the court ruled to be retribution.
Meliza Muscat told her story to Xarabank and afterwards her boyfriend was punished by the prison authorities in what the court ruled to be retribution.

A prison inmate and his girlfriend have been awarded compensation after a court declared that their right to private and family life was breached by the prison authorities' refusal to allow the man leave in order for them to get married.

The court also declared the man’s transfer to the prison’s “punishment division,” after he had filed constitutional proceedings against the prison authorities and after his girlfriend gave a TV interview about the case to constitute inhuman and degrading treatment.

Yousef Essesi and Meliza Muscat had filed constitutional proceedings against the Director of the Corradino Correctional Facility in 2019. In the court application, Essesi had also claimed to have been subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment when he had been locked in his cell, naked and without a mattress.

Essesi had been serving a jail term after being found guilty of the aggravated theft of jewellery, cash and other items from two Gzira residences in 2014 and 2015. He was also convicted of harassing a woman in 2018.

The court had heard how whilst in prison, Essesi was involved in numerous fights with his fellow inmates and had been given additional jail time for assaulting a prison warder. He had at least 107 disciplinary cases pending before the prison director.

In a sitting in January 2020, Col. Alexander Dalli, then prison director, had testified that Essesi was involved in a fight just three days prior to the sitting. During that sitting, Dalli had said that prison leave was granted at the discretion of the prison director and that he had decided not to grant Essesi leave, because of his “totally undignified behaviour in jail.”

Essesi had testified in October 2020, telling the court that his “torture” had begun during the period between January and August 2018. After getting into a fight with a group of Arab inmates, he had spent seven months alone inside Division 15, at the time a little-used division of the prison, which Essesi claimed was underground. This was denied by the prison director.

Essesi told the court that he had been “abandoned” for six months underground and that he had been told that it was for his own protection. The inmate also claimed to have been contemplating suicide but was denied access to a psychiatrist.

Prison leave granted and withdrawn

Former prison director Alex Dalli withdrew a decision to grant Essesi prison leave just 10 days before the marriage, telling him that on his watch he will never get married
Former prison director Alex Dalli withdrew a decision to grant Essesi prison leave just 10 days before the marriage, telling him that on his watch he will never get married

Essesi had initially been granted prison leave to get married, but after Col. Dalli’s appointment as prison director in 2018, this permission was revoked by the director just 10 days before the wedding. By that time his fiancee, Meliza, had already bought her wedding dress and made all the preparations.

The volte-face occurred after Dalli had read the inmate’s prison file, the court was told. Normally, prison leave is granted on the advice of the Prison Leave Advisory Board and at least six months would have to have elapsed from the inmate’s last breach of prison regulations.

“Essesi took the refusal badly, also because Meliza had been humiliated. He was locked up and sprayed with pepper spray.” He was then transferred to Division 6, known as the punishment division, where inmates are locked up for 23 hours a day and allowed one phone call every 10 days.

There Essessi rebelled, causing damage to the division and was subsequently transferred to Division 5, normally reserved for inmates serving life sentences. He spent 60 days there.

He spent the next two months unable to contact his fiancée, until the €927 cost of repairing the damage was paid for, the court was told.

Essesi was later transferred to Division 13, where he spent the next six months, during which time he was only once reported for an infraction.

Essesi had once again asked for permission to wed his fiancée but this was dismissed immediately by Correctional Captain Elenio Galea, he told the court. 

After consulting with his fiancée, he had filed a judicial protest, which was reported in the media. As soon as the director found out about the judicial protest, the inmate was sent to Division 6 without any reason.

“On my way down to Division 6, I saw the director and he told me these precise words: ‘you will never marry under my watch, say thank you to your lawyer and girlfriend',” the man had testified.

Essesi’s transfer to Division 6 after the Xarabank interview was not done for a just reason, but to pay him back Judge Grazio Mercieca

“When asked during cross-examination whether these words were said, the director was evasive and said he didn’t remember,” noted the judge. Essesi had been stripped naked to avoid the risk of him using his clothes to commit suicide, the court was told, but it noted that non-tearable clothes were normally issued in such cases.

Another consequence of the judicial protest was that his fiancée was prohibited from entering the prison and the letters she would send to him were seized. She was also not allowed to wash his clothes or send him food, noted the court.

After Meliza appeared on TV show Xarabank to tell her and Essesi’s story, Essesi was immediately transferred to Division 6 again, spending three days there, although this time he was given a mattress.

After that, he was sent to Division 3, where one of the Arab men he had fought with was also being held.

In his decision in the case, Mr Justice Grazio Mercieca held that European jurisprudence in similar cases had established that the refusal of prison leave could only be justified to maintain order in prison or to prevent the commission of further crimes.

The dim view taken by the prison authorities of inmates getting married should not have been an obstacle to this taking place and neither was public opinion, said the judge.

Noting contradictions in the objections raised by the director, the judge said he was “morally convinced that the director truly did not want the marriage to take place and the conditions on [Essesi’s] leave were just excuses.”

'Prison director assumed functions that weren't his'

Stating that the situation constituted a clear breach of the accused’s rights, the judge pointed out that “the director had assumed functions which weren’t his. Had he really felt that the marriage should not take place, he should have opposed it before the competent authorities when the wedding banns were published.”

The director’s change of heart, just 10 days before the wedding was due to be celebrated “showed at least a great insensitivity which amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment, not only to the prisoner but also to his partner.”

The judge, however, noted that the claim of torture, made in view of the prisoner’s solitary confinement, was not proven and dismissed it. Whilst solitary confinement could destroy a person and could amount to inhuman treatment, the court noted that European law permitted “immensely rigorous regimes.”

The conditions Essesi had been held in constituted “a harsh isolation, but not one serious enough to breach Article 3 [inhuman and degrading punishment].” Neither was his isolation absolute, as he had met Meliza during it, noted the court, adding that he had been placed in isolation for his own safety after getting into fights.

“Yousef was not placed in isolation by Dalli, but by Dalli’s predecessor,” noted the court, ruling that it had been justified by the need to maintain discipline in the prison and to protect other inmates.

Essesi’s transfer to Division 6 after the Xarabank interview “was not done for a just reason, but to pay him back,” said the judge, adding that this, too, constituted inhuman and degrading treatment, as well as representing an abuse of power by the prison authorities.

The court awarded Essesi €1,000 and his fiancee €500 in compensation for moral damages.

Lawyers Edward Gatt, Mark Vassallo and Shaun Zammit appeared for Essesi.