The Malta Independent 29 February 2024, Thursday
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Recent incident of prisoner attempting self-harm triggered ‘intense’ review within CSA

Semira Abbas Shalan Monday, 4 December 2023, 08:32 Last update: about 4 months ago

A recent incident which saw a prison inmate trying to harm himself while serving time has triggered an intense review of the Correctional Service agency, Prisoner Welfare Commissioner Steve Libreri said.

"Each and every story of suicide in, and out of prison is tragic, and touches us on a humane level," Libreri said. He referred to the recent occurrence where an inmate had tried to harm himself.

"This has triggered intense conversation and reviews within the CSA to try to see if there was anything we could have done to avoid and prevent that," Libreri said in an interview with this media house, adding that this is almost "an obsession" where they are constantly alert in making sure that prisoners are safe.

Libreri said that they want everyone who goes to prison, to return to society. He said that the ideal the prison aspires to be is that every inmate who enters the prison, goes out as a rehabilitated person.

He said that the prison is always working hard with politicians, members of the judiciary and different entities to leave hope with the inmates which need help.

"We understand something very particular and important. Unfortunately, people who arrive to prison sometimes arrive in despair. Some of them, have lost hope, and collapsed psychologically, socially. Some have lost everything, including families, houses and businesses," Libreri said.

He continued that while prison is intended to give the sense that offending society brings about serious consequences, it sometimes takes a mental toll on the individual.

"I want to make sure that the topic of mental health is clarified on the outside. Sometimes, I believe that the prison facility is attacked for being the only contributor to a devastated mental health of the inmate. Unfortunately, this is not the case," Libreri said, adding that they are constantly handling people with depression, emotional disorders, intense sadness and loss of hope, and inherently, the prison system works against that constantly.

The services, however, play a very important part, Libreri said. He added that there was also very strategic move being done by the CSA.

Prison as a parental figure towards inmates

Libreri said that this is the first time, in the prison facility's history, that there are two very important positions - the director and the Commissioner, which are filled by professionals coming from the helping professions.

The director of the prison, Christopher Siegersma, is a psychiatric nurse with ample experience in the field, and Libreri is a social worker by profession, having spent the last 15 years working with children and families, he said.

"We bring along not just expertise in therapeutic care, but also the social heart. Inevitably, that is our disposition towards services. Whenever we discuss how we can improve our services, we are always tainting these conversations with our social heart," Libreri said, pushing forward for more improvement in these services, and receive more funding to employ more people and for more training.

Libreri said that right now, his Office is working with all the key personalities in the facility to develop an internal training which helps to improve everyone's sensitivity, including management and therapeutic staff.

From his experience working with abusive parents in his role in the child protective services, Libreri said that it is every parent’s job to making sure they survive childhood to grow into adults, but also the important role of teaching and caring for the children to grow into social and good adults.

"That idea is so transferable into prison. From a therapeutic standpoint, the institution replaces a parent. Basic psychology and therapy tells us that in general, for human beings to heal, they require a parental figure that supports them into exploring their issues in a healthy manner," Libreri said.

Some people manage to do that, some people cannot, Libreri said, adding that the institution can adopt a parental figure for the inmates, where whoever the inmate speaks to within the prison, they would receive a parental disposition.

This is particularly important, Libreri said, as the focus would not be on just care, but also to administer discipline. "Research has told us that positive parenting is a healthy mix of discipline and emotional response," Libreri said, adding that that is also what he wants for the prison.

"We are not advocating for removing all discipline, all consequences and demand structures, as that will lead us to doing a disservice to the inmate," Libreri said.

He said that as a social worker, he has worked with many people outside in the community, and has seen people who, out of their own decisions, have devastated their lives, and in his previous role, Libreri has had to take decisions to remove the people from their home as they were posing a danger to others.

Libreri said that sometimes, certain people receive the "blessing in disguise" of being incarcerated. These people, who enter the prison after their lives have been devastated, sometimes "re-discover" their life.

"I have seen people who unfortunately lose their humanity on the outside, and then, after a few months in prison, I can have a steady, healthy, human conversation with them because they have rediscovered their life, their lucidity," Libreri said, adding that the structure of prison allows that.

He said that there is a huge debate in therapy whether outcomes are to be expected if one was to be forced to go to therapy. "When you're inside the prison, there is not much of a choice, however," Libreri said.


Need for a system which supports prisoners after they have left

Asked if there is involvement by the prison once the prisoner has served their sentence, Libreri said that in so far, the Office of the Commissioner is a very small office, which would make it very difficult for it to handle individuals inside the prison, as well as on the outside, considering that the prison population is around 700 to 800 at the moment, and they do seek out sessions with the Office.

"However, I do believe that there needs to be a system which supports people on the outside, after they have left prison. What we need to do is to work with the inmates so what we develop a care plan and find the appropriate amount of intervention," Libreri said, and when the person stabilises, the same level of intervention must be kept.

He said that there are many services outside in the community which help ex-prisoners.

Asked if there is enough services, Libreri said that the ideological debate is; do the ex-inmates need to continue receiving services that are targeted for prisoners, or should they receive a bit of an advantage on the outside so that they can make use of generic services that fit their needs.

Libreri said that he felt like that once the person is out of prison, then they are a citizen like any other, so they should receive good, appropriate care from these generic services. He acknowledged that there always needs to be a bridge, a re-integration pathway.

"The CSA works very closely with a number of NGOs, such as Mid-Dlam ghad-Dawl, Rise, Caritas, and Sedqa, and others. All these NGOs participate quite fully in management of some boards and make decisions in relation to what services can be provided," Libreri said, adding that what we need to do is allocate more investment there.

He mentioned halfway houses, which is the last stepping stone for the prisoner. Rise and Mid-Dlam ghad-Dawl have both opened halfway houses, and there are plans to introduce new halfway houses, Libreri said.


Importance of the prisoner’s family

There have also been important, new additions of services by NGOs who work with families of prisoners themselves so that the family is always galvanized, as ultimately, the inmate has to return to a home and a family, Libreri said.

"We can never underestimate the corrosive effect that offending behaviour may have on the family. A person who has offended on the outside will have inevitably caused damage to their familial structure, and there is a lot of reparation to be done for the inmate to return to a health family," Libreri said, adding that there is a lot of good work being done there, even on the inside.

On prisoners who have served long sentences, and how they cope in experiencing several societal changes from when they were first imprisoned, Libreri said that these individuals need a lot of help.

He said that there are many mechanisms with the way the sentence is managed to be able to mitigate that impact.

Libreri said that prisoners can receive leave, as well as work to re-integrate the institutionalised person into freedom, mentioning the importance of connection with the family, the provision of work inside the facility so that the inmate can receive an income and have savings to be able to afford a place to live, all mechanisms which will "soften the blow."

He said that he is not sure this is enough, identifying it as an area which needs to improve, but there is the good will to explore how this can improve.

"We have had situations where prisoners leave, not necessarily after a long sentence, but they believe that prison is a better option for them than on the outside," Libreri said, adding also instances where a person would have spent most of their lives in institutionalised settings, such as children's homes, and felt more comfortable within a prison structure.

Libreri said that life on the outside could be a bit more difficult for them, but as the parental figures aforementioned, the prison must teach its inmates to live on the outside, serving as a scaffold for them to practice living on the outside as a law-abiding citizen, and hope that when it was time for them to leave, they could manage that life.

Luckily enough, the social contract between the government, the State and the citizen includes services on the outside, Libreri said, adding that the Maltese State offers a considerable amount of support, not only financially, but in every degree, such as school, social services and medical services.

Libreri said that the prison needs to be connected to other generic services for prisoners so that they can receive support. "It's about finding the level of intervention that they need and making sure that once they're on the outside they continue to receive that level of intervention," he said.


Youth offenders

Libreri spoke about youth offenders, who are held in a completely separate facility than the one in Paola, which is equipped with all the systems that one would find in the Paola prison, yet routine differs, as society looks at youths from a different point of view.

He said that there are different responsibilities to young citizens, so the element of care is much higher.

Libreri said that generally, they try to avoid sending young offenders to prison, and make huge investments in other services within the community, so they can receive the level of care and support they need, to avoid ending up in prison in the future.

He said that in Malta, there is no secure centre to provide psychiatric and intense psychological care within the confines of secure places, adding that most residential homes adopt an open-door policy. Libreri said that the Mtahleb Correctional Facility for youth offenders offers the necessary security which in a way, incapacitates the young person from leaving and detaching from support services being provided. There, they would have to participate in the education curriculum, work and group work, he said, adding that the therapeutic community is accentuated.

"There, there is very little separation from the prisoners and the correctional officers. They eat together, they work together, they speak (to each other)," Libreri said, adding that there is a high element of care, without compromising the element of structure.



Visiting hours and prison leave

On prisoners' visiting hours, Libreri said that each prisoner has a one-hour contact visit per week, telephone calls, as well as prison leave, which is a number of hours where the prisoner can leave to meet with his family members.

He mentioned the recent family room which opened in Marsa, for inmates residing at Corradino to be able to spend time with their children, completely separate from the prison, which Libreri said was a great addition, and a very welcome project.

He continued that he always thought having children in the prison facility was unfair and traumatising, but the alternative of not having the child meeting their parent was equally unfair. Libreri described the project as a "beautiful way forward for work with families and prisoners."

Asked about controversy over certain inmates who were granted prison leave, and were reported on the media causing anger from society, Libreri said that he views inmates as human beings, part of a family and part of the community.

He stressed on the family element, mentioning the experience of children who would be doing their holy communion but cannot have their parent present.

"The prison leave opportunity is not a petty, stupid mechanism. It is a well-thought, well-structured, well-researched opportunity that makes sense, especially when we want people who come into the prison to leave as healthy citizens," Libreri said.

"If we remove the opportunity of a prisoner to leave the premises to participate a bit more fully in important family rituals, then we are losing the scope. When you are removed from family rituals, then you are ostracized from the family by default," he continued.

He said that he was not suggesting that people left the prison for a party, and the inmate who leaves must be subjected to supervision and being escorted, with a great attention to security. Libreri continued that the scope was for the inmate to remain part of their family and community.

Libreri said that an integral part of an inmates' experience is that they must always be given hope, believing it is one of the most fundamental rights. He said that the risk of suicide increases exponentially if the inmate does not have hope.

He continued that he also honoured the families of the victims created by the inmates of the prison, those who have been hurt and lost loved ones because of actions of certain people who are in the prison facility, and it is tricky to find a balance between honouring them and their sense of justice, but also having a society which tends to rehabilitate prisoners.

"In order to make sure we have prisoners who can leave as better people, we have to make sure to adopt practices inside the prison that nudge them towards the right way. Everything has to be designed to work seamlessly for that purpose," Libreri concluded.


The first part of the interview was carried on Sunday


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