Actualité

Malta: changes to prison reform are slow to happen

Over the past weeks we’ve seen major changes done to Corradino Correctional Facility with regards to visitation rights and conjugal visits, but how much do we really know about the basic functions of a prison? Jeremy Micallef speaks with Senior Lecturer in the Department of Criminology Dr Sandra Scicluna on prisons and rehabilitation.

Changes are very slow to happen in the area of prison reform, which is strange in this fast-moving world, Sandra Scicluna, Senior Lecturer and Criminologist at the University of Malta explained.

She did, however, note that we have seen a commitment to rehabilitation reform in these last years. Prisons date back to the rise of the state as a form of social organisation, tied very closely with the codifying of formal legal codes, and the Romans were known to be among the first to use prisons as a form of punishment rather than simply for detention.

The idea at the time revolved more around the notion of punitive measures as vengeance or retaliation, although the idea of using punishment to reform offenders instead of simply using it as retribution goes back to Plato in Ancient Greece. Prisons became a place to hold criminals around the 19th century as up until then they were used to hold individuals awaiting trial and convicts awaiting punishment. Physical punishments have been removed in the West, apart from Capital Punishment in the United States, although they are still very much prominent in many non-Western countries – particularly the Middle East where public executions are still ongoing.

“Punishment is the idea that if someone does something wrong then they must pay for what they have done, so you do not learn anything with punishment other than to avoid punishment,” Scicluna said. “But, if we correct, rehabilitate, or try and show the individual the reason why what they did was wrong, and why it should not be repeated, then it helps one to desist from crime.”

Scicluna noted that the prison system is being gradually modified, but this takes time because when modifying procedures in prison there are people involved - they would have routines and would be used to certain procedures.

The Maltese prison population has been relatively stable over the past few years, albeit a slow rise since 2008, and many argue that the Maltese prison system is just a means of punishment rather than that of reform.

Although it is important that justice is served and criminals are sentenced according to the crimes committed, one should take into consideration what happens to these individuals once they are back in society after they leave prison. Senior Lecturer and Criminologist Dr Sandra Scicluna explained that until a better alternative is found, prisons are here to stay – and with prison being a place where large numbers of people are going to be held in a closed, or semi-closed institution for a long period of time, these need to be studied.

“We must not leave them to their own devices because at the end of the day there are human beings there who deserve respect in spite of them having done wrong.”

“Why prison?” you may ask – Dr Scicluna will say it’s because it is the only way society has of controlling people who do not adhere to the norms of the majority.

Punishment through the ages

Prisons date back to the rise of the state as a form of social organization, tied very closely with the codifying of formal legal codes, and the Romans were known to be among the first to use prisons as a form of punishment rather than simply for detention.

The idea at the time revolved more around the notion of punitive measures as vengeance or retaliation, although the idea of using punishment to reform offenders instead of simply using it as retribution goes back to Plato in Ancient Greece.

Forced labour on public works was also a common form of punishment.

Resistance to methods such as public executions, humiliations, and torture became more widespread in the late 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in what we consider to be the West – namely Europe and the United States.

Prisons became a place to hold criminals around the 19th century as up until then they were used to hold individuals awaiting trial and convicts awaiting punishment. Physical punishments have been removed in the West, apart from Capital Punishment in the United States, although they are still very much prominent in many non-Western countries – particularly the Middle East where public executions are still ongoing. This unfortunately also includes extrajudicial executions of marginalized groups – especially members of the LGBT community.

From Punitive to Rehabilitative

Scicluna explained that changes are very slow to happen in the area of prison reform, which she noted is a bit strange in this fast-moving work, although she happily pointed out that we have seen a commitment to rehabilitation reform in these last years.

In fact, she preferred to define prisons as a “place of correction” and not a “place of punishment”.

“Punishment is the idea that if someone does something wrong then they must pay for what they have done, so you do not learn anything with punishment other than to avoid punishment. But, if we correct, rehabilitate, or try and show the individual the reason why what they did was wrong, and why it should not be repeated, then it helps one to desist from crime.”

The greater emphasis on rehabilitation through work and, on health with regards to drugs and mental health treatment has been positive, although Scicluna noted that there has been an expansion in a lot of prison populations – particularly with the U.K. and the U.S. Moving onto Malta, our prison system is being gradually modified, but this takes time because when you’re modifying procedures in prison there are people involved - they would have routines and would be used to certain procedures.

Scicluna explained that when you change something in prison, especially when the change is going to be conceived as being “oppressive” or “worse”, you are risking - not to mention that change in and of itself tends to be seen as a negative.

In fact, the young offender unit in Mtahleb recently introduced a type of reward system which was inspired by a Norwegian system which would reward good behaviour with privileges that would be earned over time. There are also people who work and go to school, mostly in prison but it is possible for a number of them to be sent to Mcast. Individuals have also been sent to University, but they must have been there for a number of years and proven themselves trustworthy.

“It is very difficult for any prison to find a course that will attract a lot of people, a problem which is then multiplied in the women’s section because of its much smaller size. To find a group of people who want to do these courses is always a challenge, so they are necessarily small but one needs at least seven individuals to start a course.”

Visitation Rights and Conjugal Visits

Recently Corradino went through some change aimed at combatting drug use and trafficking in the prison, and Director Colonel Alexander Dalli had testified in court saying that they had “eradicated them”.

Apart from investment in equipment and training, Dalli had taken a tough stance on tackling drug abuse to the point that he said he had restricted visitation rights and even conjugal visits.

When queried on this, Scicluna said that whilst she did not agree with the method, he was right in putting a stop to it because the privileges weren’t being used as they should be – although she would have preferred that they are modified rather than restricted in the way they were.

She did highlight the importance of having areas where inmates can meet their partners and families, including having rooms with little things such as bright colours and a sofa, or space where children can play.

“I’ve seen a room where a family can even spend a day together in a little flatlet - just a room and a bathroom so that they can cook and eat together. This is beneficial for them because a lot of prisoners lose contact with their families, especially if there are children.”

Life after Prison

Leaving prison is routinely viewed as a difficult experience for those who have served their time, especially with the stigma that would now follow them.

Scicluna insists that it is useless to keep people in prison for years at a time and then when they are out they are caught committing another crime within a couple of months and end up in prison again.

““That is a prison that has failed. Certain things are very important - family support, employment, mental and general health, and housing.”” Prisoners tend to lose all of these pillars, and Malta does not have a form of system whereby time can be spent in a half-way house until one re-integrates into society.

A few months ago The Malta Independent spoke with RISE Foundation about how they keep some prisoners at the end of their sentence in a kind of open-prison system which gives them a stepping stone where they could start working on finding work and other important things. Caritas also runs a similar place for drug addicts.

In spite of this lack of proper reintegration programs, we are now seeing more things being done in prison - the hiring of psychologists, care plan coordinators, and also the beginning of community service work whereby some prisoners go out to work at the end of their sentence - which also gives them a sense of giving back to society.

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