Total system failure | George Busuttil

As prisoner’s rights NGO Mid-Dlam Ghad-Dawl approaches its 17th anniversary, director George Busuttil vents his frustration at an apparent total breakdown of the prisons system.

Prisoners’ rights NGO Mid-Dlam Ghad-Dawl (MDD) director George Busuttil
Prisoners’ rights NGO Mid-Dlam Ghad-Dawl (MDD) director George Busuttil

Corradino prison has been under considerable scrutiny in recent months. In late 2011, Malta was shocked by the revelations of a fully-fledged drug-trafficking operation within the female section of the prison - as well as the subsequent court ruling against Josette Bickle, in which Judge Michael Mallia delivered a resounding indictment against the entire prison system.

More recently still, prisoners' rights NGO Mid-Dlam Ghad-Dawl (MDD) responded to the launch of a Restorative Justice Act - which purportedly introduced the concept of parole to Malta's justice system - by complaining that the law had come into effect before any of the relevant boards and committees had been set up, effectively rendering the entire exercise ineffectual.

The two incidents are miles apart in terms of immediate implications; yet both point towards an apparent collapse in the administrative system. I meet MDD director George Busuttil at the NGO's humble premises in central Bormla, a stone's throw from Dock Number One, and my first question concerns the more recent parole issue. 

He explains the law came into being only after a long and difficult gestation period: MDD had first raised the issue some seven years ago, and since then there were white papers, calls for public consultation, followed by a number of target dates that were systematically missed. Legislation was eventually passed through Parliament last November... but the law into came into force - rather suddenly and with much fanfare - towards the end of last month: i.e., shortly after a political crisis sparked (on paper, at any rate) by internal dissent over justice issues.

"To be fair, upon being appointed Justice Minister in 2008, Carm Mifsud Bonnici had immediately declared the law would be implemented. It was also an electoral promise on the PN manifesto," Busuttil recalls.

But while welcoming the Act in principle, MDD immediately pointed out that a number of provisos within the same legislation had been overlooked when it came to applying the law in practice. Without any of the boards or committees in place, the situation on the ground is that no one within the prison administration itself seems to know how parole is supposed to even work.

"The day after the law I came into effect, I wrote a letter to the newly appointed Director of Probation Services, who is in charge of the implementation of parole, and told him that inmates will surely be asking us to explain how this will work in practice. They used to ask me about it all the time before; so you can imagine how much more they would ask now that the law had finally been passed. I told him that we, as MDD, need to know what answers to give. He wrote back saying that the information would come out a later date from the competent authorities..."

But... isn't the Dorecotr of Probation Services himself the competent authority, I ask? Busuttil shrugs, as if to say: 'that's what I would have thought, too.'

Meanwhile the day after our newspaper reported this state of affairs, the Justice Ministry issued a statement to the effect that a 'substantial number' of inmates had already applied for parole. Busuttil confesses that he is nonplussed by this statement, and it seems to fly in the face of the law's own provisions.

Producing a copy of the law, he directs me to Section3, Article 7, Paragraph (c).

"The law clearly stipulates that inmates must be informed of their eligibility for parole four months before they become eligible. Obviously, none of those who applied for parole had been informed four months ago, because the law did not even exist until 27 January. Even so, how could they have been informed when there is no evaluation board to determine who is eligible for parole anyway?"

And yet, Busuttil explains that a notice was stuck up in all divisions, inviting inmates to apply for parole, despite the evident lack of preparation to handle applications.

"If they are accepting applications now, it means that they are not following the process as laid out in the same law they themselves just passed."

Nor is it clear how applicants are to be assessed. "Ideally, evaluation should be done by correctional officers, who have contact with inmates, and are in a position to observe them on a day to day basis. However, the correctional officers know nothing when asked about this; and even if they are expected to evaluate inmates, they have been given no training to this end."

Busuttil recalls a comment told to him by one correctional officer, to the effect that he was "almost afraid to tell inmates he didn't know anything when they asked."

The upshot, Busuttil fears, will lead to a backfiring of the entire system, which may undo any good it might otherwise have produced.

"You will have noticed that public response to the concept of parole has not been very favourable," he says. "People seem unable to tell the difference between 'parole' and an amnesty. They think it's just a case of letting people out of prison before their term is up. Mind you, many of these people are also against suspended sentences. They don't realise that in some cases a magistrate has no choice but to suspend a sentence..."

Now, he continues, they will read that a substantial number of inmates will have applied for parole... and they will assume that all these people will get the parole they applied for.

"They are right to be concerned: for it is not feasible that such a high number are all eligible. You will have people just starting out a 15-year prison term, immediately applying for parole. How is this possible?"

All this may be frustrating for people like Busuttil, but it is not exactly surprising. He tells me there are many other issues which suffer from a similar lack of advance planning. "We have always said that there needs to be a programme laid out for individual prison sentences. If a person is sentenced to four years, both that person and the prison authorities need to know what to do during those four years: to keep the person occupied in a way that encourages re-integration, etc."

This also has a direct bearing on the parole issue: both individual inmates and the evaluation board need to have a set of criteria against which to perform and evaluate respectively. Otherwise, the process would be reduced to little more than a random lottery.

And yet, for decades government has looked the other way, and the approach has all along been cosmetic. Former Justice Minister Tonio Borg, for instance, had 'renamed' the institute: dropping the word 'prison' and euphemistically rechristening it a 'correctional facility' instead.

Busuttil is unimpressed. "There are cells without windows; others where the windows have been welded shut. There are officers in uniform. In what way, therefore, is it not a prison?"

More importantly, Busuttil points towards an endemic problem that singles Malta's prison out from virtually all others in the civilised world. Unlike any other European prison, Corradino is run by the police: in an administrative variation of the legal theme 'nemo iudex in causa sua' ('no one may be judge in his own court').

I ask Busuttil if there is any truth to a complaint frequently-heard among prisoners, that the current acting director keeps his former police uniform on permanent display in his office.

"Not exactly uniform, but yes, the office if full of police memorabilia - framed photos, a police helmet, and so on..."

Nonetheless Busuttil defends Zammit's overall handling of matters. "He does the best he can with the resources he has at his disposal. The problem is more the system itself, than the individuals running it."

But he remains adamant that prison is no place for the police. "We have been saying this for years: the police should not be in any way involved with prison management. They have another job: to investigate crimes and catch criminals. Running a prison is a different matter; it is a specialised field, and it needs specially trained personnel. Ideally, government should send a team of officers abroad for training in correctional management - which is a science, by the way."

Moving on to the conditions within prison, Busuttil echoes complaints raised regularly by inmates - and highlighted separately by Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture - regarding the lack of heating; the quality of the food; and various other specific shortcomings in the facility's administrative set-up.

"Visiting people in prison, you get the impression that you're visiting Eskimos in the north pole," he says bluntly. "They have no heating, their cells are freezing, they're all wrapped up in anoraks and hoods..."

While fans are allowed in cells in summer, heaters - with all their propensity for health and security hazards - are not. "The prison authorities have consistently defended this, by arguing that heaters are banned in all prisons. But this overlooks the fact that in European countries, prisons have central heating. Corradino has nothing of the kind."

I ask if there is any truth to the perception that there is little or no segregation among different categories of convicts at Corradino. Busuttil nods. "Apart from the forensic ward at Mount Carmel, the only segregation is between males and females, and there is a section for youths, but it is restricted only to young males."

Busuttil however observes that, with the exception of the obvious male/female divide, all other criteria exist only on paper.

"Take Division Six, for instance, which is a maximum security facility. As such, its residents have restrictions which do not apply to other sections for the prison. But in practice, not all residents end up in Division Six because they are maximum security material. Sometimes people are simply placed there because there is no room anywhere else. As a result, they unfairly suffer consequences."

Another bone of contention - which also distinguishes Malta's prison from its European peers - is that there is no segregation depending on the type of crime. Violent or otherwise dangerous criminals end up sharing living space with those convicted for white collar crimes such as tax evasion, fraud, etc.

"The worst instance of this concerns convicted criminals, and people awaiting trial, which can sometimes take years" Busuttil goes on. "According to law, the latter are technically innocent until proven guilty. And yet, they are kept in the same divisions, and treated exactly in the same way as others who have been proven guilty..."

Elsewhere, Division 15 - reserved for largely African foreigners, in an unofficial example of 'segregation' of the less savoury kind - have by all accounts the worst deal of the lot. They share a single toilet/shower between all residents; and for reasons that are apparently arbitrary, they are not allowed visits.

But isn't this in direct violation of human rights, I ask? Busuttil shrugs. "Visits are not considered a right here, but a privilege."

Another problem concerns the food on offer: in terms of not just quality, but also hygiene and nutritional value.

"There is a desperate need to test the prison's kitchens to see if they meet minimum hygiene standards," he begins. "Nowadays, even a dishwasher in a commercial restaurant has to have a basic food handling certificate. But in prison, the inmates themselves run the kitchen. How many of them are certified to handle food? Are they dressed properly: wearing gloves, hats, etc? These are considered basic requirements everywhere else. Why not in prison?"

Inmates regularly complain about the food itself: claiming that, apart from being substandard, meals are often pre-prepared and left out for hours before being served:

"A chicken burger with chips will be eaten as cold as the table it is served on," Busuttil illustrates. "Besides, is any thought given to the basic dietary needs of inmates? For example if a prisoner eats an omelette and chips every day for three years surely this be doing him any good. But there is no programme to regulate diet within prison, nor any education about food."

As a result, Busuttil asserts that diarrhoea (among other nutrition-related inconveniences) is apparently a common problem in Corradino.

"In all this we are forgetting the basic dignity of the person. And there are other examples, too. If a person is arrested wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, he will be taken to prison wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. Unless someone from the outsidel, or another inmate, gives him a change of clothing, that is all he will have to wear while in prison. No effort is made to see if a person, upon entry into prison, has any basic living requirements. They are just left to their own devices..."

This issue is of particular concern to foreign inmates; though Busuttil regularly encounters Maltese cases who have no family, or any one to provide for them on the outside.

Given the general squalor, it is perhaps unsurprising that the prevalence of drugs in prison is now a confirmed, recorded and universally acknowledged fact. So much so, that when passing sentence on Josette Bickle, Judge Michael Mallia observed that "the large number of visits allowed to Bickle, more than what other prisoners got, and the ease with which drugs used to enter her division and come into her possession, cannot but indicate collusion with authorities."

Mallia also observed that the sentence itself was not only against Bickle, but an indictment of the entire prison system. And yet, only Josette Bickle can be seen to have paid any price; the prison system has been retained without any changes (barring the above-mentioned, inoperative Restorative Justice Act), and none of the extant administrators has been made to carry the can.

Busuttil agrees that the authorities are ignoring the overall thrust of Mallia's sentence.

"When it comes to drugs in prison, the official counter-argument has always been that it is 'family members' who bring them in. But if we really believe that, we will only be burying our heads in the sand."

Ominously, he points towards a dismantling of measures to combat drug importation in Corradino. "One thing I have not understood is: if they are so convinced that drugs are imported by outsiders such as family members... then why did they remove the sniffer dogs? We haven't seen sniffer dogs in prison in years... why arem;t we reinforcing this section?"

All in all, Busuttil concedes that these problems are not limited to Malta. "It is not just our prison system that has failed. When it comes to drugs, for example, there is a problem in all prisons. But we are far, far behind. And to make matters worse, we either do nothing at all, or try to do things which are avant-garde, without making sure the basics are in place. For instance, we recently discovered Shakespeare" - a reference to a recent drama initiative among young offenders - "It's all very good to have Shakespeare in prison, and to get nominated for awards and so on. But all the above problems have remained, Shakespeare or no Shakespeare..."

Meanwhile, Busuttil points out that even as young offenders act Shakespeare on stage, an industrial kitchen worth thousands of euros, installed at considerable expense at YOURS (the young offenders section), remains closed for most of the time and is never even been used.

Instead, residents of this section eat meals prepared for them by an outside caterer, as part of a public private partnership.

Shakespeare himself would no doubt have appreciated an irony in there somewhere...

More in Interview
avatar
the article and title do not match! is this the journalism that we arevin today? title should have read PRISON SYSTEM IN THE CHANGING