Prison director Alex Dalli has ‘suspended himself’ after a prisoner died by suicide in the latest of a series of such cases.

This is the first step in the right direction but the issue is far from sorted. What we (activists, academics, journalists, NGOs, family members, inmates and former inmates) have been asking for in these last years is that the prison leadership needs to be removed.

Incredibly, however, instead of regrouping under acting director Robert Brincau, some staffers are busy running around like headless chickens, compelling prison wardens to sign a petition to keep Dalli in his post. 

Once again, the home affairs minister, who must surely be the most ineffectual cabinet member, is clueless on how to deal with the situation. On the one hand, he has had to succumb to the pressure to get Dalli out of prison management and now has to contend with a growing agitation that risks putting the whole institution in jeopardy. 

It is clear that prison used to be run on a quasi-cult leadership and standard operating procedures and protocols were either inexistent or else were ignored.

When it comes to prison boards, it is very clear that the direction there was weak. 

The last time I spoke to one of the prison committee heads I was told that “suicides happen in all prisons”.

Back to the minister. It is clear that he and his advisers and apologists don’t seem to have had a plan for life at Corradino after Dalli. The shrewdness of the director was that he became the regime and the regime became him. 

That is why the prison needs reform. 

Prison was run on a culture of fear and oppression- Andrew Azzopardi

We got it wrong from all angles. We need to start with the building which is a major obstacle to reform; it is old, inadequate and deficient. We then need to find alternative ways of punishment that do not necessarily mean people are plonked in prison in droves and packed in cells like sardines. 

We must educate the judiciary to use prison sentencing sparingly, we need to establish more community homes and prison officials need to be trained properly. We need fewer people awaiting sentencing and the prosecution and courts to be more efficient. Foreign prisoners need to be deported, if they come from safe countries.  We need efficient, trustworthy and professional prison managers who are not blindly loyal to their head. We need to ensure that NGOs have access to prison and the media is allowed to monitor operations. 

Having a new director is only the first step. Regrettably, this had to happen after 14 deaths in three years, eight of which were confirmed to have been suicides. Three suicides took place in a few months. We have never witnessed such a situation in prison before.

The only thing that the director was managing to do was to camouflage the situation in prison together with the inapt home affairs minister who had his back (until now). 

Prison was run on a culture of fear and oppression. Rehabilitation was nowhere to be seen. Basic things like prison education, work, access to therapy and adequate care plans were privileges rather than an essential component of a rehabilitation programme.  The use of solitary confinement was widespread.

The Ombudsman’s Office took the initiative to investigate what is happening in prison, apparently the police commissioner is also investigating allegations on the director and a ministerial inquiry was set up to establish whether suicide protocols are in order.

I want a situation where the hundreds of people who walk in and out of that building become better citizens, with life skills, civic responsibility and a desire to redeem themselves. 

The prison model we have chosen has failed us and has failed the victims in particular.  Change can happen if we use the immense resources available. 

If well-meaning academics, NGOs, policymakers, politicians and the public come together, they can bring about change. Kim, Colin, Arun Jose should still be with us, coming out of the system not in a coffin but reformed.

Is that too much to ask for?

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