‘Solitary confinement making Maltese prisoners vengeful’

Prisons and courts condemning inmates to a future of mental illness says University dean who wants abolition of punishment

“Solitary confinement remains a controversial matter because we still relish a prison system that is essentially retributive rather than rehabilitative. The need for vengeance is still pronounced in our public psyche”
“Solitary confinement remains a controversial matter because we still relish a prison system that is essentially retributive rather than rehabilitative. The need for vengeance is still pronounced in our public psyche”

Locking prisoners up in solitary confinement for hours will not make Malta any safer, a University dean has told the Prime Minister and the President of the Republic in a plea to abolish the practice.

Andrew Azzopardi, dean of the Faculty of Social Well-being at the University of Malta, has called solitary confinement inside the Corradino Correctional Facility a ‘retributive violation’ that goes against the rehabilitation that prisons should be giving.

And in a salvo addressed to the ministers for justice, home affairs, social policy, as well as to MPs and the Chief Justice, Azzopardi has called for an immediate debate in the House of Representatives to revoke the punishment.

“Whilst there is a need for measures that protect individuals and staff from harm, as well as for disciplining persons who disobey the rules when in institutions, the use of solitary confinement should not be considered as an option,” Azzopardi said.

“This is because of the varied and severely detrimental psychological and neurological effects that have been documented in numerous research studies… the use of solitary confinement may, in fact, worsen the behaviour of those who go through the experience, leading to aggressive outbursts and an inability to integrate back into the prison population or society.”

Solitary confinement is a punishment that the law courts in Malta can give for specific criminal offences, for periods of not more than 10 days with an interval of two months between each stint. Solitary confinement may be applied during the two months if any other offence is committed during those two months, but the period cannot be longer than fifteen days. Unless the law says otherwise the maximum amount of stints is twelve.

Prior to applying this punishment, the criminal court must be satisfied that the person convicted is fit to undergo the punishment, even if necessary, through medical examination.

But Azzopardi says that while measures must be taken to protect persons held in institutions from causing harm to themselves or others, solitary confinement can worsen the problems it was designed to solve.

“Although longer periods of confinement lead to worse effects, even relatively short periods in confinement can have profound and lasting psychological consequences. One psychologist conducted a study of 100 randomly selected prisoners being held in a Californian supermax prison in 2003.

“He found that almost all the prisoners in solitary confinement experienced high anxiety levels, irrational anger and irritability, mental confusion, and heightened sensitivity to external stimuli. Many people in solitary confinement become so desperate that they experienced a psychological breakdown, often resulting in serious self-harm and, in the worst cases, suicide,” Azzopardi said.

Azzopardi also claimed the cost to run this system was “exorbitant financially”, but did not produce any details on the finances required.

Malta’s correctional services cost just under €15 million to run in 2019.

“For example, are citizens willing to wait for the national health services because resources are directed to mitigate the harmful effects of solitary confinement on prisoners?” Azzopardi asked. “There is also another ‘cost’, that of having to deal with vengeful attitudes against society, broken families, mothers whose children end up like this. For what? Are we ready to pay tax money to hurt a locked-up prisoner?”

Azzopardi said solitary confinement only worsens inmates with pre-existing mental health problems or disabilities who are even more vulnerable to the adverse effects of their experience. “Humans have a fundamental need for social contact, and research has  shown that the social  pain  – as experienced in cases of confinement – has an overlapping effect with emotional pain in the brain,” Azzopardi said, also listing stress-related reactions such as decreased appetite, a sense of impending emotional breakdown, heightened anxiety and panic, irritability and aggression, paranoia, as well as increased suicidality and instances of self-harm.

“We need to keep finding ways how to support victims of crime [but] solitary confinement remains a controversial matter because we still relish a prison system that is essentially retributive rather than rehabilitative. The need for vengeance is still pronounced in our public psyche,” Azzopardi said.

“Yet solitary confinement unjustly weighs against the perpetrator of the crime and does not respect the notion of proportionality… once it doesn’t contribute to reform, it simply serves to break an inmate’s spirit making them hate society even more. It fuels, rather than neutralises, a criminal mindset.”

Azzopardi wants academics, policymakers, practitioners and politicians to sit around a table and find alternative ways of retaining order and stability within the prisons system. “As a national university we are duty-bound to provide a service to the State – we are ready to take this on.

Until change in legislation and regulations takes place, checks and balances of how, when and in what circumstances this method is used need to remain monitored, scrutinised and evaluated.”

Azzopardi also said solitary confinement should not be part of the courts’ sentencing. “From where I stand it’s a desperate measure on the part of those who lack other solutions. It does not do the job it is meant to do. It does harm which results in making the situation worse rather than better. So, logic dictates that if it doesn’t work, and it causes harm, why do we still do it?”

Both the Council of Europe and World Health Organisation contest the use of solitary confinement, yet they accept there are circumstances that make it acceptable. The WHO urges that in cases where solitary confinement is used as a last resort, prisoners be kept in decent physical conditions with access to educational, recreational, and vocational programmes.

The practice of solitary confinement originated in the United States during the early 1800s, as an experiment assumed to encourage prisoners to reflect on, and subsequently repent of the crimes they had committed. The practice consists of isolating an inmate, depriving them of social contact and sensory stimulation for most of their day. It has been used as a form of punishment for prisoners who would have committed egregious crimes, committed infractions whilst in prison, or as a form of protection – either to protect the person in confinement, or to protect others from the person in confinement.

Solitary confinement spread to various continents, but as early as 1890 the US Supreme Court identified the risk of “prison psychosis” and prisons gradually stopped the practice. The punishment, however, saw a resurgence in the 1960s, as prisons started to deal with overcrowding and violence amongst inmates.