Discipline must be tempered with dignity | Beppe Fenech Adami

Malta’s prison is once again under scrutiny, after two warders have been charged with the involuntary homicide of Kim Borg Nicolas: a 29-year-old inmate who attempted suicide in June. Opposition home affairs spokesperson BEPPE FENECH ADAMI argues that Corradino is in deep crisis: a crisis that government refuses to acknowledge

Beppe Fenech Adami addresses a PN mass meeting. Photo: James Bianchi
Beppe Fenech Adami addresses a PN mass meeting. Photo: James Bianchi

For some time now, the Opposition has been sounding the alarm about the state of Corradino Correctional Facility (CCF). Do you feel that criminal charges filed against two prison warders were an appropriate response to the current situation? Or do you stand by previous claims, that it is really the prison administration which should be held responsible?

Let’s be clear about something: what happened was the consequence of a magisterial inquiry. I understand that a magisterial inquiry was appointed to investigate the death, by suicide, of a 29-year-old female inmate; and it seems that the magistrate’s conclusion was that criminal procedures should be taken against those two prison warders.

So what is happening today, is only happening because of that magisterial inquiry. But I believe that is not enough. It is too little, too late: because what we are talking about here, is actually the 14th death in CCF, over a period of slightly more than two years. That amount, alone, is indicative that something is very seriously wrong with our prison system.

To put that into context: on the basis of ‘deaths per 1,000 inmates’, our statistics work out at double the prison death-rate in the United States. That is very worrying; and unfortunately, the government is refusing to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. And if the powers that be do not acknowledge that the problem even exists…. how can the problem be addressed?

Yet on a recent edition of Xtrasajf (of which you were also a guest), Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri suggested a reform of the prison system: including the construction of a new facility, to cater for over-crowding (and distinguish between different categories of crime). What do you think of those proposals?

[Shrugs] So far, we’ve heard a lot of words; but we haven’t seen any action. But to put things into perspective: today, we still have a prison with 469 individual cells… which is currently hosting nearly 900 people. As a result – according to statistics for last February – 185 of those 469 cells, which are meant to host only one inmate, are hosting two or more inmates. And when we talk about ‘cells’, we are talking about rooms that are roughly 3x3 metres...

So definitely, government has to expand the present prison capacity. In fact, one of the proposals my party came up with, was that: yes, we have to build another 125 to 130 cells, to accommodate the present overpopulation in our prison…

However, both Labour and PN are adopting the same approach: ‘The prison is overpopulated; the prison must be expanded’. But criminologist Sandra Scicluna, whom I interviewed last February, argues that the real problem is “the huge number of inmates who are not convicted at all; but awaiting trial under arrest.” Shouldn’t we also, then, be looking at alternatives to prison, in such cases? 

Absolutely. As it stands today, we have a situation where, out of a total of 821 people currently in prison, 279 – around 33% - are ‘under preventive arrest’. This means that our judicial system is not functioning properly. So government has to ensure that the judicial system is well-oiled, well-staffed, and endowed with as many judges and magistrates as it needs, to make for a fully-functional administrative set-up: so as to decide cases – and issues such as bail – in the shortest time-frame possible.

But we should also look into the reasons why people are denied bail in the first place. I can understand that there are very particular cases where granting bail may seriously prejudice the case. However, I am also convinced that there are ways and means around that problem. One of the avenues we should explore, for instance, is the possibility of electronic tagging…

… but isn’t that something that Byron Camilleri also announced this week? A ‘Bill to introduce electronic tagging’?

Yes, but the bill only considers the possibility for persons who are serving the last part of their sentence out of prison. I am unaware that it is possible, right now, to impose electronic tagging as a bail condition. That is an avenue we should be exploring: not as a general rule, perhaps; but in exceptional cases.

For example: so that we don’t end up with mothers of small children in prison. As I am sure you are aware, there are cases right now of women - who are either serving a sentence, or under preventive arrest – who are separated from their young children. Surely, there should be alternatives to prison in such cases. And electronic tagging might be a worthwhile avenue to explore…

Another factor concerns the overwhelming majority of foreign inmates. For various reasons – inability to provide fixed address; likelihood of absconding, etc. – foreigners are almost routinely denied bail in Malta. The judiciary itself has complained that the law offers no alternative to prison, for crimes such as entering the country with a false passport (that can only really apply to non-Maltese suspects). Do you have any proposals, to address what looks like an in-built system that permanently discriminates against foreigners?

The foreign prison population is, in fact, a major concern. At present, 55% of inmates at Corradino are not Maltese. One of our proposals, as PN, is that government should seriously consider the possibility of expatriating these prisoners.

I have to be very clear about this: I am not speaking about people from countries where there is no respect for fundamental human rights; and where sending them back could endanger their safety. But in reality, that 55% also includes people from Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Greece, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy, Portugal, the USA, the UK…

These are all basically Western democracies. Many of them are members of the European Union, or the Council of Europe. There are international treaties, whereby prisoners serving a sentence in Malta could be sent back to serve the rest of their term in their country; and I am quite certain that most of these people would not object to being sent back.

But government is not investing enough energy and time to explore this possibility…

Easier said than done, though, isn’t it? What if their home countries don’t want them back? What if we don’t have extradition agreements with some of those countries…?

That is an issue, yes. I have no doubt that some counties would object: initially, at least… but I am also convinced that we could be doing much better than we are doing right now. To put that into context: in the last two years, we have had only three cases of foreign inmates sent back to their home countries. This is not good enough.

If all the powers that be within government – including on a diplomatic level; on a bilateral level; and at the EU level – were to focus on this avenue, I am sure it would be possible to achieve better results.


Onto another issue now: discipline. It is widely known that current CCF director Alexander Dalli is a military-style disciplinarian (as evidenced by his apparent motto, ‘we are here to teach fear’)… but isn’t it also true that the preceding situation – including under Nationalist administrations – was the opposite? In 2008, for instance, former director Sandro Gatt admitted that (to quote a newspaper headline) ‘[prison inmate] Leli il-Bully runs the show’. Doesn’t this mean that the excess of discipline today, is really just a pendulum swing back from yesterday’s ‘free-for-all’?

Yes, let’s talk about discipline. I believe that discipline is very important, within a prison set-up; but it has to be a discipline tempered with dignity. I think that’s the key, to all this. My party is certainly in favour of a prison administration that ‘administers’… and that is not ‘bullied’ by any ‘bully’ in our prisons…

But any disciplinary measure has to be carried out with dignity. My problem with Mr Dalli is not personal – I hardly even know the guy – but with his school of thought.  It is a school of thought that exists, yes: he is not the only one to believe that a prison should be run like a strict military regime.

But in this day and age – in 2021 - that school of thought has been put aside in most modern, functional democracies. It only still exists in dictatorships. Because the emphasis on ‘instilling fear’, among prison inmates, is a formula that simply does not work. 

Discipline? Yes. But instilling fear – as a tool to control prisoners – is passé, as an idea. Experience has taught most modern European countries that, unless the emphasis is on ‘reform’… the system will not function.

There is, however, a flipside. One of the common criticisms levelled at yourself – but also prisoners’ rights activists such as Peppi and Andrew Azzopardi – is that you tend to place more emphasis on the rights of criminals, than of the victims of their crimes. How do you respond to that?

Let me be very clear: speaking about prisoners doesn’t make you ‘popular’ in Malta. I know this from experience; I get phone-calls, I get messages, I get insults… the ‘lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key’ syndrome is thrown at me every other day.

How do I respond? One thing I say is that, ‘one doesn’t exclude the other’. Speaking about prisoners’ rights, does not exclude the victims of crime. In fact, those two issues have a direct bearing on each other.

Today, for instance, a staggering 76% of the people serving a prison sentence at CCF are ‘recidivist’. They have all committed previous crimes. This, in itself, shows us how our prison system is clearly failing to reform prison inmates; it is the result of having a punitive, rather than a correctional system.

But when you have 76% of inmates who, once released, will go on to commit another criminal offence... it only means that there will be another victim, every single time. So it is even in the interest of the victims themselves, that we have an efficient prison system: where there is discipline, yes; but where we also prepare prison inmates for reintegration into society. 

In a nutshell, it is useless imprisoning people… if they are only going to come out worse as a result.  So yes: let’s talk about the victims of crime, and their rights; and let’s also make it clear that whoever causes victims, has to pay for what they did.

That is why we send people to prison in the first place. But ‘sending people to prison’ is the punishment. Once in prison, the State – and society as a whole – has an obligation to reform those people. And that, ultimately, is in the interest of the victims themselves…


This raises the question of whether imprisonment, in itself, is always an appropriate measure. As we all now know, Kim Borg Nicolas was serving a two-year sentence for what were ultimately drug-related offences: ‘fraud and theft’, clearly to support a drug habit. So… should she really have been sentenced to prison at all?

It is a problem that has to be addressed, certainly. At present, we have a complement of 60% of the prison population who have some sort of drug problem or other; meanwhile, we gloat that we have ‘eradicated drugs from prison’… however, we have people who are committing suicide in prison; and one common denominator, when analysing all those suicides, is that they all had drug problems…

Precisely: but with all due respect, that is also partly the legacy of past Nationalist administrations. It was a PN government that introduced mandatory prison sentences for importation, regardless of quantity (resulting, among others, in the Gisela Feuz fiasco); it was a PN government that declared a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on drugs…

Look: we could do a whole other interview about what happened in the past. I have said this before: the Nationalist Party was not perfect, when it was in government. We made mistakes. But now, we have to move on. We need to look at what is happening now. Right now, we have a situation where 14 people have died in prison over a period of two years… that is a crisis of the kind we have never seen before…

Fair enough: I’ll rephrase the question. What credibility does the Nationalist Party have – right now – to talk about these issues: when so many of the present problems are, in fact, attributable to past PN governments’ mistakes?

Let me put it this way: I come from a party that spent 25 years in government. And we made mistakes, yes… but the PN also brought about big changes in this country, including within the prison system itself. When we speak about the parole system, for instance. It is one of the things the Nationalist government introduced. Even things like ‘suspended sentences’… certain social services within the prison environment… these were all introduced by my party in government.

So… where we perfect? No. But has the entire world evolved since 1987, and throughout the 25 years the PN was in government, until today? Yes, definitely. Even the way we look at issues such as ‘prison administration’, in 2021, has changed beyond recognition since the 1980s, or 1990s. And I’m not just talking about the ‘Nationalist Party’, or ‘Malta’. Things have evolved since then, everywhere in the world.

And the experience of the whole of the Western world teaches us that we should be moving away from the concept of prisons which ‘punish’… to prisons which ‘rehabilitate’. That is where the rest of the democratic world is going. And that is where we, in Malta, are failing today.

So, irrespective of partisan politics… let us at least acknowledge that the prison system needs a shake-up. Let us have the humility to acknowledge that… there is a crisis in Malta’s prison system and it has to be addressed.