When, in January of this year, 29-year-old Kim Borg Nicolas Virtu stood in the dock charged with theft and fraud, the prosecution argued that some time in prison would help her break her drug-dependence habit.

The court sentenced her to jail but the magistrate made it a point to highlight that Kim needed help and specifically encouraged the director of Corradino Correctional Facility to ensure that she undertook the drug rehabilitation programme.

That was in January. Six months later, Kim was still in jail, waiting to be allowed to join the Caritas rehabilitation community at San Blas. But, for obscure reasons, the prison board would not release her.

Help was far from forthcoming. Her father told Times of Malta that, while locked up, Kim was placed in solitary confinement – considered to be the worst sort of prison punishment – several times. By June, she had had enough. She shouted through her cell bars she would commit suicide and then asked for a blanket and pair of jogging pants. The warder on duty handed them to her.

Minutes later she had hanged herself. She was taken to hospital, where an MRI scan also revealed three broken ribs. No one knows when or how these ribs had been broken. Kim succumbed to her injuries a fortnight later.

Her inconsolable parents are beyond themselves; they believe that their daughter “was driven to insanity” and are suing the state. And so they should.

This is not the first prison death since director Alex Dalli took charge in 2018. Clearly, he fancies himself as an officer running some kind of concentration camp. His motto, framed and hung up in his office corridor is “to teach fear”. He even installed a ‘restraint chair’ where prisoners are allegedly left tied for hours on end.

What appears to be a sadist has been given a playground to practise his hobby. No one dares to stand up to him: if you’re a well-meaning warder, you’re given a transfer; if you’re a prisoner you’re sent to a stifling isolated cell for months.

How many more people have to die on his watch before action is taken? His boss, the home affairs minister, stays mum and the prime minister insists Dalli has his “full support”. Possibly, only the person who put him there in 2018 – surprise, surprise, Joseph Muscat – has the answer to why this man is untouchable.

Corradino has always been an ugly, filthy and run-down space. It now has a director whose soul represents its aesthetics- Kristina Chetcuti

Corradino has always been an ugly, filthy and run-down space. It now has a director whose soul represents its aesthetics. We call it a ‘correctional facility’ but, really, it’s a ‘crime facility’. Magistrates and judges need to keep in mind what sort of prison we have before they hand down their sentences: no one will come out of there reformed until the whole system is overhauled.

I believe in people facing the consequences for their actions – that’s justice. And I believe in the need of a prison. But, at the end of the prison term, that prisoner is going to be my neighbour and your neighbour. So, it pays us all if prisoners are helped to use their time in to repent and emend.

Statistics are very telling. In Malta the rate of recidivism (people who commit crimes upon release and end up in prison again) is at around 70 per cent, if not more. It is what you get if nothing is done to rehabilitate prisoners. By way of comparison, the world average is 50 per cent; in Scandinavian countries it’s 25 per cent.

Also, we have too many prisoners: 154 prisoners per 100,000 of the population. The European average is 117. In Norway it’s 63 prisoners per 100,000. We are inching closer to the countries with the largest prison populations: Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey… all countries with rubbish democratic credentials.

There are about 800 prisoners in Corradino at the moment; about half of them Maltese. The majority are serving a sentence for violence, rape, theft or drug-related crimes. None receive tailor-made therapy. They are watched over by warders.

You become a Corradino warder after about three months’ training. But that depends: in election time, training could take as little as three weeks. In Norway, for example, it takes three years, at a special university department to train to be a prison guard. There, warders are effectively social workers with legal training. Their job is to try to understand how people became criminals and help them change. They are also well paid, so there is no chance of corruption.

Each Maltese prisoner costs taxpayers around €100 a day; a prisoner in Norway costs triple that. But because of the low number of prisoners, prisons effectively cost the same to operate in both countries – around €24 million a year. The difference is that those €300 a day in Norway, mean that, by the end of the sentence, the prisoner is reformed, fully qualified, holds a job and is no longer a threat to society. In Malta when prisoners are released, they are simply handed back the clothes they wore the first day they were locked up.

Perhaps it’s high time we adopted the Scandinavian incarceration philosophy, where losing liberty is considered sufficient punishment. “If we treat inmates like animals in prison, then we will release animals on to your street” is the maxim they go by. Prisoners are not taught fear, they are taught respect through decent accommodation, work, access to nature and education.

We need a revolution in rehabilitation now. We cannot wait for another tragedy like Kim’s.

krischetcuti@gmail.com

twitter: @krischetcuti

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