A 29-year-old prisoner who died by suicide on Sunday wanted to follow a Caritas rehabilitation programme but was prevented to do so because of the current legislation, Times of Malta can confirm.

Caritas has been advocating for more flexibility for prisoners with drug challenges, including being allowed to follow the programme as soon as possible in the case of short sentences, particularly when it comes to vulnerable individuals and first-time offenders, a spokesperson said.

Caritas was contacted after popular presenter Peppi Azzopardi claimed on Facebook that the late prisoner wanted to follow a programme but was not allowed to. 

The female prisoner died in hospital on Sunday, about two weeks after she was found unconscious in her cell following a suicide attempt.

She had a drug problem and was serving a two-year jail term after admitting to six counts of fraud and theft last February. 

Reacting to her death, organisations that work with prisoners told Times of Malta that convicted drug addicts should be able to apply to attend rehabilitation programmes at an earlier stage in their jail term.

Caritas Malta director Anthony Gatt and George Busuttil, from NGO Mid-Dlam G─žad-Dawl, agreed that laws should be amended to allow prisoners to apply earlier. At the moment, they must spend at least six months behind bars before making a request.

'Retributive elements are too harsh'

“While the opportunity to attend a programme outside prison as well as rewards for prisoners showing progress is praiseworthy, much more focus needs to be placed on rehabilitation, especially with those who demonstrate less readiness for change.

“These people report that prison for them becomes a very gruelling environment and feel that retributive elements are too harsh,” Gatt said.

“Withstanding the prison environment becomes very difficult and traumatic,” he added.

Busuttil agreed saying that prison was not the right place for these people.

“Losing a life is tragic. Taking your own life is even more tragic. Taking your own life in prison surpasses all tragedy,” he said.

Former Sedqa director George Grech – who chairs the Prison Addiction Rehabilitation Management Board that decides on prisoners’ applications to attend rehabilitation – explained that, according to normal procedure, when a drug addict is convicted, the detox centre is immediately notified to continue supplying methadone.

Treatment continues under the care of prison doctors and the person is monitored by a multidisciplinary team that includes psychologists and psychiatrists.

An prisoner can apply for rehab after six months in jail to ensure that methadone levels are not high and that the person – who would have been living a chaotic life – is more settled.

Ideally, the sentence of a person attending a programme is no longer than two years, the duration of the programme. But even prisoners with longer terms are considered and could apply for parole later to avoid returning to jail.

Gatt said that, while he understood that the prison operated within a legal framework, “we would definitely like to see more flexible laws in relation to prison in terms of being able to apply for a drug rehabilitation more promptly in the case of short sentences and having stays in rehabilitation extended in case the formal period of the programme elapses.”

Meanwhile, Busuttil called on the attorney general to publish the findings of magisterial inquiries into the 12 prison deaths that occurred over the past two years.

“The public deserves to know the outcome. If something was not done right, we should know to ensure it is fixed. If nothing went wrong, we should know to put our mind at rest,” he said.

Last December, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri fended off criticism about the number of prison deaths saying that, after seeing the conclusions to some of the inquiries, “the absolute majority of them – about 75 per cent” were due to natural causes.

He said it was up to the AG to decide whether or not to release the findings.

However, when asked, Attorney General Victoria Buttigieg ruled out making any details public saying they are “confidential in nature”.

12 deaths in prison over three years

Twelve prisoners died while serving time at Corradino Correctional Facility over the past three years.

The most recent case involved a young woman who died in hospital about two weeks after she was found unconscious in her cell following a suicide attempt. The 29-year-old, who had a drug problem, had been serving a two-year jail term since February.

Her case fuelled questions about the system used by the prison in dealing with drug addicts and with people contemplating suicide.

Adding fuel to the questions is the self-proclaimed attitude of prison director Alex Dalli, a former army officer known for his military-style leadership, who took over the facility on June 13, 2018.

His methods have been questioned and several have asked for his resignation with opposition leader Bernard Grech pledging to have him removed if elected.

The prisoners who died since June 2018:

June 7, 2018 – A 35-year-old was found dead in his cell with no signs of external violence to his body, the authorities said.

December 11, 2018 – A 26-year-old prisoner died, reportedly by suicide, as he began his sentence for rape.

December 26, 2018 – A man died after he was found unconscious in his cell, hours after complaining he was feeling unwell and asking for painkillers.

March 13, 2019 – A 39-year-old man died by suicide. He was awaiting trial for attempted murder and domestic violence.

October 27, 2019 – A man was found unconscious in his cell and was taken to hospital, where he died.

November 25, 2019 – A 49-year-old died after being found unconscious in his cell with no signs of external violence.

November 30, 2019 – Quadruple murderer Ben Ali Wahid Ben Hassine died in hospital, according to media reports.

February 24, 2020 – A 72-year-old was found dead in his cell. The prisoner was John Attard, an accomplice in the stabbing of traffic warden Fortunata Spiteri, 19 years ago.

September 5, 2020 – A 45-year-old was found dead in his cell. The authorities said he died of natural causes but his family expressed doubts given his age.

September 7, 2020 – Nazzareno Mifsud, 57, was found dead in his cell with suicide being suspected. He was facing an extradition request from the US for molesting two boys.

November 19, 2020 – Pakistani Ihtisham Ihtisham, 25, was found dead in his cell with initial indications suggesting he died in his sleep, the authorities said.

July 4, 2021 - A 29-year-old woman  died, almost three weeks after she was found unconscious in her cell, in what prison officials described as a suicide attempt. 

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