The Malta Independent 30 September 2023, Saturday
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‘Drugs in prison are negligible’: only 7 cases from 3,376 tests – prison director

Semira Abbas Shalan Sunday, 4 June 2023, 08:30 Last update: about 5 months ago

Only seven out of 3,376 urine tests carried out on prisoners in 2022 turned out positive, CEO of Corradino Correctional Facility Christopher Siegersma said, a drastic decrease compared to 2017, when 134 people were found with drugs from the 1,861 tests carried out.

The presence of “drugs in prison is negligible”, Siegersma told The Malta Independent on Sunday in an interview, highlighting the importance of preventing drugs from spreading among inmates, effectively catching individuals who try to smuggle illicit substances into the prison.

In the span of three years, the facility at Corradino has had three different prison directors, raising a question on the leadership at the prison, and whether the individuals concerned have done an adequate job in running the facility.

Siegersma was formerly the first Prisoner Welfare commissioner, a role which was recommended by a board of inquiry which called for reforms aimed to give special attention to inmates’ mental health and address suicidal thoughts.

He replaced former prison director Robert Brincau, who resigned last January after he was found guilty of a range of offences including injuring a man and carrying a gun without a licence.

Siegersma said that his new role as leader builds up on his previous position.

“Obviously, now I have the responsibility of the prison falling under my hands. Still, I want to safeguard the rights of prisoners and even those of officials in the prison. It is a dual role,” Siegersma said.

He was asked if he has an indication of when the commissioner role would be reappointed, to which he said that there are discussions to find the adequate individual, as it is a sensitive role. The role of commissioner has been vacant since Siegersma was appointed CCF CEO.

Siegersma said that the new commissioner must work hand in hand with the director, as was done before.

“The monitoring board is still functioning and is currently assuming the role of the commissioner; so the voice of the prisoner is still there and is being heard,” Siegersma added.

He said that in the meantime, there are still professionals, psychologists and social workers catering to the needs of the prisoners, delivering their complaints to the director’s office, so that he can address them.

Asked what type of director he is, Siegersma said that in the first four months, he needed to take stock of the situation. He said that currently, office work and seeing what can be done to increase services provided in the prison takes up much of his time.

He mentioned a Memorandum of Understanding which the prison signed with mental health NGO Richmond Foundation, which looks to train prison officials for mental health first aid.

Mental health first aid will give training to officials so that they are better educated to recognise if there is a prisoner suffering from mental health problems. These officials can then refer such cases to the professionals, Siegersma explained.

A number of inquiries have been conducted over the way the prison is administered, as well as inquiries on incidents which happened in the prison.

Asked how many of these recommendations were implemented, Siegersma said that the institution has taken note of all recommendations and it continues to work to respond to these inquiries so that measures are implemented within the prison, mentioning the mental health first aid training for things to move forward.

Siegersma was asked if the current prison at Paola is large enough and whether he would prefer if the prison was more isolated from society.

“Ideally, we would have a new, modern prison. But there is no space in the country. There is no locality which is isolated enough to hold a prison,” Siegersma said, adding that rather than being isolated from society, it would be better to have more open spaces.

He said that even though the current prison is old and space is limited, more divisions are being built within the prison walls in Corradino to better cater for the needs of prisoners.

Siegersma said that these rehabilitation units, within the prison, will segregate prisoners with problems of alcohol or drug abuse, for inmates to be offered different types of rehabilitation such as individual and group therapy.

“If we had a prison in Comino, for example, there would be more open spaces for recreational sports and activities. However, the space we have is limited,” he said.

Asked if prisoners, serving sentences for paedophilia, are segregated from other prisoners, Siegersma nodded in confirmation.

Siegersma was asked about privileges prisoners can enjoy. He said prisoners have access to a telephone, television, can use Skype to contact their families, can go out on prison leave, as well as opportunities to work in the prison industry, gaining more skills in tradesmanship.

“There are privileges given depending on the division at the prison and its level of security. In higher security divisions, there are less privileges,” he said.

Siegersma also said that individuals serving a sentence must use their privileges responsibly, and cannot, for example, call someone related to the case and threaten them. Privileges would then be withheld for a period of time to maintain discipline, he said.

A few years ago, the prison registered 14 deaths within a short time. Some were natural deaths, but others were suicides. This had led to the resignation of then prison director Alex Dalli in December 2021. No further deaths have been reported both under Brincau and Siegersma.

Asked what has changed, Siegersma replied that the prison population is naturally more susceptible to mental health problems, not only because their liberty was taken away, but also because the life they have gone through was more turbulent, having had difficult backgrounds.

He said that to increase the professionals and courses for mental health first aid, are things which help prevent deaths, but it is not guaranteed that these events would not happen again.

“There is always the chance that these incidents happen, but hopefully we can keep them to a minimum as much as possible,” Siegersma said.

It could also be said that the prison has received a bad name due to the many deaths, the amount of drugs, as well as its previous leaderships.

Siegersma was asked how the prison can be attributed to rehabilitation, if the ones who run it do not fulfil their duties properly.

“Rehabilitation does not only come from the prison CEOs. There are people who believe that we should throw away the keys and not allow prisoners to leave again. My vision as a CEO is to as much as possible provide opportunities of rehabilitation, to prevent more victims in the future,” he said.

Would you say that due to a change of leadership, the system of the prison has improved?

Siegersma said that each leader has had their positives and their negatives. When pressed on certain leaders doing more bad than good, Siegersma said that it depends on the leader’s overall aim.

“My road towards more rehabilitation in the prison was ready, as I entered into my role into a prison which was already clean from drugs,” Siegersma said, giving credit to previous leaders who significantly decreased drug presence at the facility.

“Drugs are negligible in prison. I had an easier road to offer more opportunities for rehabilitation. Having a prison full of drugs, like how it was before, proves rehabilitation was impossible,” Siegersma said.

He said that it may be that prior leaders had their first challenge, which was the drug problem.

“You need to press on the brakes, before starting the process of rehabilitation,” Siegersma said.

He continued that cases which allowed for drugs to enter the prison have always been pinpointed, from where it came from to what it is.

Siegersma said that while privileges are important, and that someone cannot be stopped from going on prison leave, it is important for drugs not to enter the prison compound, taking measures to find potential drug possession when the individual comes in and is searched.

“It would have essentially entered the prison, but it would not have spread, as we would have found it. That is the current state of the prison, that (the presence of) drugs is negligible,” he said.

Siegersma said that in 2017, out of 1,861 urine tests conducted, 134 people were found with drugs. Six years later, in 2022, from 3,376 urine tests conducted, only seven cases were found. Figures that were provided to The Malta Independent on Sunday (see table) show a steady decline in the number of positive cases while the number of tests on prisoners increased.

He clarified that the seven were not cases of drugs which were spread throughout the prison, but were caught with trying to enter the prison with drugs.

Asked about controls over rule-breaking when prisoners go out on prison leave, Siegersma said that the Prison Leave Board approves prison leaves, taking many things into consideration. Prisoners can go on prison leave only for weddings, baptisms and events of family members, he said.

What cannot be controlled, however, is people who have no affiliation with the prison taking pictures, which could feature a prisoner’s relative, he said.

There is also speculation on whether a prisoner, who has had his picture taken with a cup in his hand, has actually consumed alcohol, he said.

Siegersma said that people who have been on prison leave are tested for drugs and alcohol, but there are limits to how much the prison can control pictures taken and shared on social media during prison leaves.

There was controversy when one of the convicted murderers of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, George Degiorgio, who is serving a 40-year jail term for his crime, was granted prison leave by the law courts to attend a family party.

His brother, also serving the prison term for his role in the assassination, had had his prison leave request to attend his daughter’s birthday party rejected, after the court placed the decision on the prisons’ director.

Asked if there was a change in how things are done, and if they had a right to be allowed prison leave, Siegersma said that the Prison Leave Board decides if persons, who are serving a sentence go on prison leave, taking many things into consideration, such as behaviour.

In certain instances, it is the court which approves this prison leave, he said.

“Even though the director can stop the decision of the courts, it never was the case that we did not take the court’s recommendation,” Siegersma said.

Pressed further on the Degiorgio brothers, and Alfred’s prison leave rejection, Siegersma said he did not want to comment on individual cases, but said that the decision to approve prison leaves is not a one-man decision, as the Prison Leave Board decision is recommended to the director.

Siegersma cited many reasons as to why prison leave could be rejected, such as bad behaviour, not being allowed to attend friends’ events, and other factors.

“The first case mentioned (referring to George Degiorgio) was a court’s decision. The second case (referring to Alfred Degiorgio) was not,” he said, reiterating that many different factors influence the decision and that the court decides on whether a person under arrest is allowed to leave the prison.

Siegersma also highlighted that society needs to better accept former prisoners back in the life outside of prison, specifically workplaces and banks.

He said that prisoners still find it difficult to open bank accounts, merely to receive their pay and be able to use it. Siegersma appealed for this to be changed so that prisoners can be accepted back into society.


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