The Malta Independent 28 September 2020, Monday

Prison: starting a process of forgiveness

Andrew Azzopardi Wednesday, 16 September 2020, 06:25 Last update: about 12 days ago

The prison has been under the spotlight in the past weeks.  The moot methods of the Director/CEO/Colonel, the extraordinary number of suicides together with the dubious methods in the management style being used in the prisons are a major concern.

True, we have always had a problem to be merciful.  I do understand the anger that rises towards people who have behaved so despicably.  All crimes are bad but some are atrocious.  When someone or something you love or have worked hard for is taken away from you it is terrible.  But much as this may sound hard we need to be guided by human rights rather than the Code of Hammurabi. 


The role of the State should not be vindictive but restorative, healing and recuperative.  Now, true, ‘evenhandedness’ is a very complex issue. 

I think we need to speak about ‘forgiveness’ which in this context would mean ‘rehabilitation’ and about ‘justice’ which entails ‘respect’.  We need to ‘accompany these people’ who have lost their way and done inexcusable loathsome things to the community.  Nevertheless, there is never a good enough reason to pull to pieces their humanity. 

We need to concede that everyone errs, some deliberately, others not.  But I am a strong believer that people don’t commit errors in a vacuum.  In most cases there is a context that suited that behavior.  If we bothered most behavior or tendencies towards criminality could have been predicted.  Where was the school, the informal, non-formal educators, the parish priests and the community leaders?  Where was their family? 

It is a fact that we are socialised through good role modelling and in the absence of that we risk creating monsters.  I want to believe that everyone can steer their ship in the right direction if given the chance to do so.  Yes, I believe that everyone can improve but we need to deconstruct the negativity and not create a system that augments it. 

So, whilst I recognise that hardened criminals exist in this world and need to be contained and society protected, this does not give us carte blanche to turn our prison into a netherworld.

But it seems that our rancorous nature is way too strong.

So whilst the prison is there to regulate the wrong-doers and get them to pay for their misdemeanors, yet we need a system that produces restored humans.  The responsibility of the State is to make this a better society.  Having angrier people will not help.  Giving agency is what the prison should be about rather than dismantling identities as we are doing by perpetuating institutionalization, introducing uniforms, placing people in Division 6 (as part of the intake procedure to break people down) and removing conjugal encounters. 
So I am proposing a reform.  Division 6 needs to be closed and all current practices of solitary confinement stopped immediately.  The harm being done to the brain is simply excruciating and there is evidence I have spoken about in the past.  I would also like a change in the Criminal Code so that the right of the judiciary to apply such an inhumane sanction which breach the fundamental human rights is removed. 

Imminently we need a full-scale inquiry commissioned to address the spate of deaths and what is causing people to feel so desperate they need to commit suicide.  Normal is when people do not commit suicide and not when they do!  I expect that inquiry outcomes are sent to the families without making it practically impossible for them to have access to them.  Alleged intimidating, menacing and hostile tactics like the ‘infamous chair’ should be stopped.  Over populating cells, shifting people around Divisions without a rationale therapeutic reason, stopping visits without informing the family, should be bunged. Access to the media has to be unrestricted.  Hygiene is to become a priority.

Staff needs to be trained not only in physical restraint but also in mental health first-aid.  A clear protocol of how to deal with potential suicide needs to be developed.  Children should never be deprived of accessing their parents, not even when the parent needs to be chastised.  People cannot know all about all – discipline in an academy and jumping off a helicopter are not commensurate with dealing with psychological issues in a prison. 

Hearing a journalist say that the Director is referred to as ‘daddy’ is silly to put it mildly and shows that something is intrinsically wrong.  The ‘Don’ motif comes to mind.  The Director should not occupy the post for more than four years (not renewable) and should be appointed through a system of grilling equal to that of the Police Commissioner.  The Prisons need to fall under the Social Standards Authority to monitor the quality of life and all prison related committees need to be made up of people competent in the field.

We should also seek to put down the numbers.  Over 700 people in prison is way too much.  We need to devise incentives to drop the population to a third of what it is in the coming 10 years and in the next five years build a completely new prison. Providing programs for around 10% of those is not good enough.  Our target within the next two years should be that 80% are in training/instruction. We need to introduce tagging, focus more on community services, strengthen the use of probation and parole, remove life sentences, develop notions around open prisons and if life sentences have to exist we need to provide proper opportunities for all.

The services offered in prisons by social workers, psychologists and the medical staff should not be answerable to the Director. I suggest we develop a system with a Director General and two directors, one responsible for security and another for rehabilitation.  The Director General will not be an ex-army official neither a police officer but a person specialized in human service management.  We also need to introduce programs for victims.  I am aware that work is being done in this regard - but nowhere near enough.  Prisoners are victims and need to be offered these services as well. 

Much as this might sound tacky, we need to work hard towards offering a way out for these people.  They need to pay for what they did but also given an opportunity to redeem. Bashing them will not do them any good (most will be out of prison very soon).  I am keener on giving these people a chance and hopefully recuperating as many of them as possible – it makes me feel safer and it drops the cost of running this place. 

When one considers the money we are putting into the system and how we are failing to reduce recidivism should be an eye opener that things are not good.  It is by focusing on their future conduct within the community that should be our priority and not pulling to pieces people within the institution.

Hence we need to strengthen our correctional services, improve them as we seek to bring about changes and agency.  In not so many words, I am recommending that our prison concept goes back to the drawing board.

 Prof. Andrew Azzopardi is Dean, Faculty for Social Wellbeing, University of Malta & Broadcaster

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