Just over a year after he was appointed prison's first welfare commissioner, Christopher Siegersma has now become the new prison boss, taking over from Robert Brincau.

Brincau resigned on Tuesday after he was found guilty of a range of offences including injuring a man and carrying a gun without a licence.

At age 39, Siegersma becomes one of the youngest high-ranking prison officials in history.

Who is he?

Siegersma is a nurse by profession and specialises in psychological trauma related to criminal acts. 

Before being appointed prisoner commissioner a year ago, he worked in the mental health sector. He was a psychiatric nurse for 17 years, leading multidisciplinary teams of professionals including those responsible for crisis intervention, home treatment teams and young patients.

He holds a Master's degree from the University of Malta in mental health and is reading for a PhD at Queen Margaret University of Edinburgh.

He was appointed Commissioner for the Development and Welfare of Prisoners in December 2021 and tasked with implementing recommendations made in an inquiry that looked into the way Corradino Correctional Facility was being run. 

The inquiry came on the back of a string of prisoner suicides and led to the replacement of controversial prisons director Alex Dalli with Brincau.

What is his ethos? 

Siegersma believes prison should firmly and meticulously prioritise rehabilitation for offenders who have been sentenced for the first time.

Helping long-time offenders is also crucial, he believes, but addressing young juvenile's issues as quickly as possible prevents them from becoming institutionalised and stuck in a system that would see them re-offend so many times that life in prison, for them, becomes more convenient than life outside.

This is what he had told Times of Malta last May, when he sat down for his first interview as commissioner in his office inside prison.

Asked whether people can put their minds to rest that the inmates serving sentences will not commit another crime when they’re out, Siegersma said it is not that simple because all inmates have gone through very different experiences.

"Some have been in and out of prison since they were youths. It’s more challenging for them, because they are generally victims of a society that failed them time and time again and addressing all those failures here is no easy feat, because for them, prison life has become almost more convenient than life outside," he said, adding that prison was working towards better wellbeing for prisoners.

"We have a care and reintegration team made up of psychologists, care plan coordinators, sports coordinators, social workers and other professionals.

"We are even introducing yoga for therapy now as well. We’re also beefing up the job sector for inmates, because work is crucial during rehabilitation, and we’re in the excavation stage of a new rehabilitation wing that will serve as a place where inmates begin and end their sentences.

"This section will give them a higher degree of independence and prepare them to be good citizens when they’re out. But then, it’s up to society to give them a chance as well."

What will be some of his biggest challenges?

Now that he is at the helm of prison, the buck will, pretty much, stop at him.

Most crucially, he will have to find a way to keep drugs out of prison. Former director Alex Dalli had successfully eradicated drug trafficking in prison and his successor, Robert Brincau, sustained the success.

Siegersma cannot afford to let the problem plague prison again, because in his own words, when prison was more permeable to drugs, the situation was "horrible".

"We had a situation where inmates’ families would get dealers knocking on their door, telling them their son bought drugs in prison and now the parents owe the dealer money. It was horrible," he had said in the Times of Malta interview.

He will also have to forge alliances between guards who preferred Alex Dalli's style of leadership and are still working in prison today, and other officials who disagreed with Dalli's unorthodox methods and wanted a fresh start a year ago under Brincau.

The swelling prison population is also going to be a big headache for Siegersma. Inmates are increasing, but prison space is not. The British-era building is home to almost 1,000 inmates but was built for much less. It also has infrastructural problems, including cells that overheat during summer and make life inside prison unbearable.

Most importantly, he will have to carry out the recommendations of the inquiry which proposed a major overhaul of the current prison system a year ago.

It calls on the authorities to build new facilities, reduce overcrowding, increase attentiveness to inmates' suicidal thoughts and mental health, focus on rehabilitation and crack down on excessive punishment.

It suggests that a rehabilitation centre be built within the confines of prison and that the prison be divided into a high, medium and low-security areas, to cater for the different convictions of inmates.

It also suggests specialised rehabilitation programmes for drug users, sex offenders and inmates with anger management problems, as well as a life skills program and work-oriented programs, among others.

The inquiry board went so far as to recommend a halfway house which operates as an open prison designed to help inmates re-integrate in society.

Some of these recommendations, such as the rehabilitation centre, are already in the process of implementation, while others are yet to see the light of day.

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