A harrowing existence: prisoner’s wife lives in abject conditions waiting for his release

Cockroaches scuttle in the drawers and cupboards, even in winter, while the three tenants wash using basins and water boiled over cooktops

A mother of two lives alone with a two-year-old son and a ten-year-old daughter in a house she rents that is squalid and dilapidated.

Cockroaches scuttle in the drawers and cupboards, even in winter, and the three tenants wash using basins and water boiled over cooktops.

The 38-year-old mother says that she is renting the house for €250 a year and admits that it’s cheap but the house consists of two rooms - an upstairs bedroom and a downstairs kitchen-cum-bathroom. 

“I live off social security, €400 a month. My husband’s in prison on drug charges,” she says, before breaking down in tears. “We’ve tried everything, I don’t know why they don’t want to help us.”

It’s an upgrade from living in a car for over two months after the husband was arrested. The two used to live with the husband’s mother but they had fallen out since the husband was arrested.

“I’ve been with my husband for six years,” she says, adding that he’s more than ten years younger than her, being 24. “He’s been in prison since October 2018. I had money saved but I spent it on hotels, groceries, petrol.”

She says she cannot live with her mother since she too has very limited space and lives off social security.

Asked why she couldn’t work, the woman explains that though free childcare would guarantee that she could leave the children in someone else’s custody while she works, her two-year-old suffers from fits and she constantly has to get him in and out of hospital.

“I was a care worker for over 14 years. But after a time, the administrators wanted to see some qualifications and I didn’t have any. I was let off despite my experience, despite knowing how to nurse and care for a vulnerable individual.

“I’ve tried getting a new job after that but then I had the little boy and had to start depending on social security. It’s not enough. We usually rely on people’s charity.”

The walls of the house are of exposed stone, mouldy and damp. In the winter, it’s freezing. In summer, it’s too hot. The woman cannot afford an AC unit or even a proper fan.

She says that during Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca’s tenure as president, she used to receive €150 in vouchers per month through the Malta Community Chest Fund. When President George Vella took over, she was denied help and was told that there were individuals who were worse off than her.

“I keep getting the same reply on social housing. I have been on the housing list for over ten years but keep getting told that there are others who need more help than I,” she says.

€55 a month from her social security cheque are spent on utility bills, she is in arrears on the TV bill, the children manage to connect with a public Wi-Fi from nearby, and other monies are sent to the husband for a mobile phone card and other expenses.

“He’s looking to try and get a job in prison, three months before he is released in July, but nobody is helping us. He doesn’t have a school education but he can do any kind of manual work.”

The woman is afraid that social workers would turn up one day and take the children away. She says the two-year-old is yet to start school but that the daughter does well, and is responsible and obedient.

The daughter listens to her mother’s pleas. She has old soul eyes as she sits straight in a chair at the family’s small kitchen table. The boy is crying and playing with a bubble blower that contains neither water nor soap.

The woman says she made contact with the Prison Fellowship Malta, an NGO that supports inmates and their relatives. Mark Vella, from the organisation, helped her by purchasing some groceries and taking the children out.

Vella told MaltaToday that the husband was free from drugs.

“He desperately wants a job and is free from drugs, at least that’s what he says. His family is mostly all in prison but he wants to turn his life around. Nobody from the prison staff is talking to him or attempting to help him.

“What broke my heart is the little girl, whom I also met. She sits there, quietly, listening, knowing everything,” Vella said, describing the case as exceptional, as he described how the family are unable to afford something as basic as toilet paper.

The same NGO also runs the Angel Tree Club which takes care of children aged between three and 12 who belong to prisoners, ex-prisoners or victims of crime.

The prisoner’s wife tells us that her lawyer had asked for €1,700 for appearing for her husband but has only been paid €200 so far.

“He calls all the time and demands it but I just can’t afford it. I can’t afford the TV bill either and they will soon take away the channels,” she says. She opens the fridge, which is full of medicine bottles and a small carton of milk.

The woman looks forward to her husband getting out of prison because that would also mean that she could take her children out for a stroll more often.

“I had to sell the car for food, so we travel by bus. Sometimes I take the children to the nearby playground. They constantly ask me for things I cannot give them. They are unhappy here and we’ve tried everything,” she says.

According to the last data tabled in parliament, there are 12,472 single parents caring for 17,898 children across Malta and Gozo. The woman is not a single parent by choice, but is one of them, at least up until her husband is released from Corradino.

According to the latest EU statistics on income and living conditions, in total, there were 80,000 individuals below the risk of poverty line or 16.8% of the entire population, of which 8,000 suffer from severe material deprivation and 6,000 from low work intensity.