The Malta Independent 5 March 2024, Tuesday
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Prison facility is on a ‘very good’ track forward – Prisoner Welfare Commissioner

Semira Abbas Shalan Sunday, 3 December 2023, 08:30 Last update: about 4 months ago

Compared to the Corradino Correctional Facility of 15 years ago, Prisoner Welfare Commissioner Steve Libreri said that there has been a “considerable” improvement in supportive services, the prison environment, as well as a change in the culture of correctional officers, leading to a prison facility which is on a “very good” track forward.

Speaking to The Malta Independent on Sunday, Libreri gave insight into his role as Commissioner for Inmates’ Welfare and Development, since he was appointed in July of this year, as well as the developments made since the Office of the Prisoner Welfare Commissioner was established.

The role of prisoner welfare commissioner was created in 2021 as part of the government's efforts to implement recommendations made in an inquiry that looked into the way Corradino Correctional Facility was being run. Libreri is the third to occupy the role.

 

The Office as a ‘catalyst’

Libreri said that in the past months since his appointment, he has been trying to integrate well within the system and services, which he described as a 'huge learning curve'.

He said that it was his second time officially stepping in the prison building, as he had had a work experience during his undergraduate training as a social worker around 15 years ago, but what he had learnt about the prison back then is no longer valid today.

Now, there is a completely different service system, mentality, managerial system and leadership culture, Libreri said, adding that he had to re-learn the system which was opposite to what he had previously known.

Libreri said that the Office of the Commissioner exists to support the inmate vicariously through the system.

The Office is not part of the managerial of the Correctional Service Agency, being an independent, parallel office, which exists with the scope of making sure that the Correctional Services Agency adopts practices which are humane, fair, research-oriented and sensible, Libreri said.

"There is a reason why prison exists, and as a society, we have moved away from the idea of having a facility that serves only to put people inside and forget about them. We have moved away from the idea of pure punishment," he said, adding that today, it is about rehabilitation, re-integration and correction.

In order to support a person who has offended society on the outside, a "very complicated" therapeutic system needs to be in place, Libreri said. He described a system that is very knowledgeable about the psychology of the human being, one that is able to bring together discipline and emotional response with therapeutic care.

Libreri said it is his job to make sure that these systems are in place, and that they work together seamlessly, in a manner that makes sense.

"In my experience in many different settings, sometimes you have plenty of services, but unfortunately, these services feel fragmented, failing to come together," Libreri said, adding that there is the need for a “catalyst” to bring these services together in these instances, and the Office of the Commissioner has the primary motive to serve as that catalyst.

Libreri said that since his appointment he has been trying to understand different services, and make an appraisal of how they collaborate with each other.

 

Communication with inmates

Libreri ran through a “usual day” in his role as Commissioner, where he spends the vast majority of his time meeting with the people within the prison.

"I arrive at my office, unpack and go and visit the inmates – conversing with them and listening to them," Libreri said.

Since his appointment, Libreri has managed to speak to officially about 120 inmates, with many others in his commute to the divisions.

From the response he has gotten in terms of applications to have meetings with the Commissioner, Libreri said that he immediately realised that the inmates understood that there is an office that serves to fight for their rights.

"Inmates have different possibilities. They can apply for meetings with staff, with the Ombudsman, with the director as well as myself. It looks like the most popular remedy is the Office of the Commissioner," Libreri said.

He said that there is an existing understanding in the facility that there is someone who is there to listen and who is open to understand their problems and experiences from their point of view.

"As a social worker I have been trained in systemic use and I believe that the fastest pathway to understanding an issue, which exists within an ecosystem, is to connect with all parts of it," Libreri said, adding that he places a considerable amount of importance to meetings with inmates, also investing time in meeting staff such as the correctional officers, care-plan coordinators, psychologists, senior staff and management.

Libreri said that when one tries to understand the problem qualitatively, they run the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture.

He said that each and every one of them has their own understanding of what the issues may be. His job is to then bring everything together, incorporated with research, to be able to give a research-informed understanding of what the issues in the prison may be.

 

‘Huge’ improvement in support and addressing prisoners’ issues

Asked how these issues are addressed, Libreri said that it does depend on the issue. He said he could broadly categorise the existing issues under two main umbrellas – the micro-issues, which include problems which are relevant and pertinent to the individual and the macro-issues, which are systemic issues.

Libreri said that there is a very complex support system in and out of the prison to address the micro issues.

"The Correctional Services Agency must be understood as an integral system that collaborates with services on the outside. We cannot make the mistake of seeing an inmate as only an offender,"

Libreri said the inmate is a human being first and foremost, with a life and a family.

He said that all of the inmates have been sent to prison because of anti-social behaviour that needs to be changed and reviewed; however, many of these people have background difficulties. Libreri mentioned child custody issues, mental health issues, social difficulties such as housing, family problems, financial problems, substance misuse.

"The CSA throughout the years has intelligently teamed up with different entities which serve to support inmates both on the inside and on the outside," he said.

The micro-elements of his work do not necessarily entail that Libreri himself finds a solution, but he can decide to refer prisoners or collaborate with other staff in the prison at the Care and Re-integration Educational Unit (CCRU) he said.

Libreri added that 15 years ago, this unit only employed three people – two psychologists and a social worker. Now, the unit employs around 40 people, "a huge improvement" in terms of support, he remarked.

"All of them are young, enthusiastic, yet experienced professionals who dedicate a lot of time to work with the inmates, so for micro elements I generally refer inmates to them, but I also use my position of authority to push for it," Libreri said.

He mentioned that the most common applications for support generally relate to adjustments in the remission or increasing the number of sessions per month.

Libreri said that there is a vast population of foreigners who need assistance in handling cross-country matters, such as payments on the outside or issues related to status applications.

"There, I am a bridge between the different entities, and make sure to put in a word with these entities and apply pressure to make the inmates' stories heard," Libreri said, acknowledging that it can be difficult for persons on the outside of the prison to allocate enough time to prisoners, as their incarceration prevents them from pursuing their issues on the outside.

 

Systemic changes

Libreri said that he is the one who pursues issues on the outside on behalf of prisoners.

"However, I firmly believe that my Office exists to make systemic changes. I place a considerable amount of attention on the macro-element of the complaint. I look at the clusters, which are the most interesting, and most important," Libreri said.

He said that in identifying these, he can then return to the senior management of the agency and be able to collaborate in developing long-term and effective solutions to the existing problems.

"I have been creating ties with instrumental people and services so that we could always create a system that works forensically towards the improvement of the prison environment," Libreri said.

He added that it is his goal that by the time he leaves his role, he would like a prison facility which serves the inmate in a very particular way.

Libreri said that one has to imagine themselves in an inmate’s position.

"If I, for some reason start to offend, the question to ask is, what do I need inside that prison to rehabilitate myself and correct my offensive behaviours? I am putting myself in their shoes, but not just," Libreri said.

He said that one must also put themselves in the family's shoes and ask, "what kind of treatment inside the prison would I be okay with, for my brother, cousin, daughter, son, to change?"

Libreri said that this is the prison facility he envisions and that the current prison is on a very good track forward.

"When I was appointed in July, I entered the prison with the same lens I had 15 years ago. I was very positively surprised though as I noticed considerable changes in the culture of the officers. I noticed a considerable improvement in supportive services as well as the environment of the prison," Libreri said.

He said that there is always more to be done, even in terms of training, as continuous professional development is very important.

 

One-third of prison staff has completed recently introduced mental health first-aid

Libreri said he has seen a huge change in the mentality of correctional officers, wherein most of the officers today adopt a correctional culture, rather than a disciplinary culture.

"I think that was probably one of the things which impressed me the most," Libreri said, adding that he when he speaks to the officers he does not leave with a bitter taste that the people working there are only interested in discipline and security.

Libreri said that for good reason, he believes that the CSA still places a considerable amount of attention on discipline and security; however, most officers have adopted better sensitivity towards the inmates' stories, seeing it more through a humane disposition.

He said that there must have been something along these past years which has helped in the reformation of the officers' culture and viewpoint.

Libreri said that he has reviewed what has been done over the years, and he noticed that different training sessions were introduced.

"This year, about one third of the entire working population in prison has completed the mental health first aid, which is a course that teaches its students to become more sensitive towards aspects of mental health," Libreri said.

He acknowledged that prison is intentioned to create enough stress on the inmate so that the inmate is deterred.

"Research on stress tells us that in order for anyone to embark on the pathway for behavioural change, they must always be exposed to a degree of stress. If the stress is not sufficient, the person might not be encouraged to change his/her behaviour. Prison is in itself aimed to be a bit stressful," Libreri said.

History has shown, however, that when a prison facility is too stressful, then there can be a systematic push towards the exacerbation of mental health, rather than keeping everyone in check, and on the path to rehabilitation, Libreri said.

 

Training ‘instrumental’ for a change in culture

He said that the training sessions have been instrumental for a change in culture and for the prison officers to adopt a more humane approach.

"In fact, I was surprised to see that most of the inmates' complaints do not concern the approximate 500 correctional officers within the prison," Libreri said, noting that there are some complaints of officers and prisoners clashing in character.

Generally, Libreri said that he receives a lot of praise from inmates towards certain officials who are helpful, supportive and understanding, which is instrumental towards improved mental health.

Libreri said that the prison facility has made important improvements, noting that the Medical Intervention room in the prison has been improved over the years, with more equipment and resources.

Architecturally, one can have all the services in place, but there cannot be a dissonance between what happens on the ground, in the divisions and the services, Libreri said, adding that these need to collaborate to create an environment designed to support inmates towards behavioural change.

 

Second part of the interview will be carried tomorrow

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