It comes as no surprise that an inquiring magistrate has identified shortcomings following the death by suicide of a prison inmate –  a  29-year-old woman who seemed to be on the road to start her recovery from drug addiction, had we listened to her pleas. 

I have always said that this tragic story is a watershed moment because the death of this beautiful soul had a major impact on our social psyche.  Tragedy now has ‘a face’. 

Nonetheless, while justice needs to be done and seen to be done, I find it disturbing that we risk scapegoating the two prison officials who are to face charges.  Yes, they should be investigated thoroughly, and the truth must emerge.

However, we also need to reflect on the alleged misdemeanours of these two prison officials and what shaped their mentality. Did a culture of lassitude creep into the establishment and dampen peoples’ judgements?

Were there clear protocols in place? Did the systems work at all? Do the people employed in prison have what it takes to deal with such a challenging environment and have the right dose of emotional intelligence? 

Lest we forget, Peppi Azzopardi and I have repeatedly indicated flaws in the prison system. 

The whole criminal justice system is distorted and sick.  It is also true that prison had been abandoned for years.  It had been left to deteriorate and people were duped with an army colonel appointed prison director.

Do the people employed in prison have what it takes to deal with such a challenging environment?- Andrew Azzopardi

This person alienated everyone by stopping access to drugs from prison but providing little in the way of therapeutic responses and post-sentencing support. He dressed officials in military-style uniforms (a long-removed model of incarceration) and allegedly ran around culling pigeons. 

So, what are we left with?  We are left with a leadership that dished out solitary confinement on a regular basis and created a culture of fear and terror in inmates as well as prison officials.  Meanwhile, the political class was happy to stand up for him, even though it was clear that this style of leadership is an outdated model. 

It is true that politicians are now speaking differently.  They are finally talking about things that need to change and some of our proposals are being adopted. This is fine. But it is the urgency of the situation that we need to address.

Back to the recent developments. 

The prison system clearly failed this young woman who was so disturbed and so distressed that the only avenue she saw was to hang herself.  Even if these two officials who are to be charged are solely responsible (which I do not believe is the case) the prison system failed to protect her  despite its state-of-the-art equipment, uniforms, drills and procedures (archaic and outdated).

Suicide represents the collapse of a system, the implosion of society, the failings of the communities that surround the person.

I will never accept that we couldn’t save this young woman.

That is why in our statement, following the news about the two prison officials to be charged, Peppi Azzopardi and I asked for a public inquiry to establish whether the state could have avoided the death of the 29-year-old inmate.

The responsibility of this case should not rest on these two officials only. 

It is the time for the right type of people to take on the leadership of our prison, people who are qualified and properly trained but, above all, people who have not only the expertise but also belief that prison should be a proper rehabilitative institution.  It is a known fact that most people in prison have been traumatised and are affected by this experience for life.

Kim should never have died in that way.  Now that it has happened, her death needs to signify a change in direction – we certainly owe her this.

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