It is often argued that you can judge a society by the way it treats its vulnerable or dependent members. These routinely include the poorest and most disadvantaged, the oldest, those with serious ill-health or disability, addicts and prisoners. Such groups depend directly on society and on its attitude towards them for many of their most basic needs and rights.
All too often society fails them, especially as regards prison.
This reality has been highlighted recently with respect to the Corradino Correctional Facility. Over the past three years, 12 prisoners have died in circumstances that remain problematic while there is also extensive concern about abusive behaviour and extreme methods employed by a militarist management regime. The known attempts of suicide within the prison walls shows something is very wrong.
Dignity and respect are just some of our most basic needs and rights. As such, they are inalienable and cannot be suspended simply because someone has been sent to prison no matter what their crime. Attitudes within society towards prisoners contributes to the difficulty of perceiving them as being worthy of respect. This is true not just of prisoners but of many groups who are significantly dependent on the state.
This situation can be made even more difficult given the high numbers of prisoners from lower socio-economic and disadvantaged groups, reflecting deeper divisions and attitudes in society.
Depriving people of their liberty is one agreed punishment in society for proven criminal behaviour. People are sentenced to prison as a punishment, they are not sent there to be punished further, despite the views of some.
Prisons remain closed institutions with limited access, thus making transparency, independent monitoring and accountability difficult and problematic.
Order and discipline are obviously necessary in prison but this does not and should not equate to institutionalised bullying or brutality or to the promotion of fear as a control mechanism. Extensive use of solitary confinement or of a ‘punishment chair’ has been and should be widely condemned.
The frequent use of restraint in a prison is a matter of concern as is the defence of such tactics by the home affairs minister.
Our newsroom continues receiving claims of cruel methods adopted at Corradino to ‘teach’ prisoners a lesson. Many such claims often cannot be verified because the media is barred.
Recognising there is no quick fix solution to crime and criminal behaviour in Malta as elsewhere, talk of rehabilitation and education as the solution might be considered premature. Expecting our prison system to reform those who have been marginalised or disadvantaged in society remains almost impossible with the current setup. But we should not tolerate a system of overcrowding, disrespect, abuse or fear. While society debates its agenda and expectations of prison, what is required is a decency agenda as practised elsewhere outside Malta.
Such an agenda focuses on ensuring a wide range of processes are in place to ensure prisons are run fairly. To function effectively, prison must be decent, non-corrupt and transparent.
To the greatest extent possible, prison should not only address the needs of society but also those of prisoners. Respectful treatment would assist the perception by all, including most prisoners, of the legitimacy of the prison environment.
It could also go a long way to reduce conflict and violence as well as contributing to the broader goals of society. With the current setup at CCF, that is not possible.
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