Female prison inmates were yesterday shocked to hear the Prime Minister’s wife defend a scheme that resulted in them being owed thousands of euros for work rather than taking a stand in their defence.

The Prime Minister’s wife, Michelle Muscat, yesterday hit out at the Times of Malta’s “negative” reporting after it ran a story that 14 female inmates at the Corradino prison said they were owed over €16,000 for sewing they had done since last June. The work was carried out for the Love, Faith, Forgiveness project, which is endorsed by Ms Muscat, who chairs the Marigold Foundation

“Did she say when we’re going to get paid? “That’s what I’m interested in,” said one of the inmates who questioned why Mrs Muscat had not defended them.

Addressing a press conference yesterday, a visibly angry Mrs Muscat said the scheme allows inmates to get out of their cells and do something productive.

However, following this newspaper’s report, the inmates were barred from entering the workshop yesterday and today. They have no idea how long the ban will last.

“Nobody told us anything. We know some big-heads came today but that’s it. All we know is that we can’t go to the workshop and we don’t know how long this will last,” one inmate said, in tears, as she thanked the press for giving her a voice.

The scheme is a voluntary one and inmates are paid “market prices”, Mrs Muscat insisted yesterday. Inmates said they were being paid €3 a metre for curtains – a price that was laughed at by several seamstresses contacted by the Times of Malta.

The inmates designed and sewed curtains for a June 2015 exhibition held in Parliament, did soft furnishing work for a number of wards at the St Vincent de Paul residence and sewed 400 costumes used during the November 2015 Commonwealth summit.

Mrs Muscat said yesterday that a payment was made to the inmates in February, but she was unable to quantify the amount paid.

Mary Grace Pisani, the woman behind the project, who is also a close friend of the Prime Minister’s wife, has not denied the inmates were not paid. She said only that she was waiting to be paid by her clients before she could pay the inmates.

When Mrs Muscat was asked why Ms Pisani had not been paid for 400 costumes for the CHOGM event, the Prime Minister’s wife said “ask the government”.

She said the Marigold Foundation should have been contacted before the Times of Malta published the story.

The newspaper in fact carried a reply from the foundation, which distanced itself, saying it had nothing to do with the administration of payments.

Several attempts to contact Mrs Muscat by phone on Tuesday were unsuccessful, but Mrs Muscat said yesterday: “If you follow the media,
my dear, you would know that I was on holiday.”

She said the media should report positive stories instead. “This is your challenge,” she added, objecting to “partisan reporting”.

Following a media tour of the prison workshop, which was empty, one nervous - looking inmate was brought forward to speak more about
the scheme.

She said that Ms Pisani “says she will do her best [to pay them]”. 

Mrs Muscat insisted the Love, Faith, Forgiveness project only does work when orders are received from clients and can only give inmates their dues once payments have been received.

Ms Pisani denied profiting from the project in any way. She also denied a claim by one of the inmates that the measurement of curtain material was done by width rather than by length.

Both Ms Muscat and Ms Pisani sidestepped questions on whether the Love, Faith, Forgiveness project is a registered NGO as required by law.  

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