Recently I had the opportunity to meet Mark Vella of Prison Fellowship Malta, one of the small number of organisations that is involved in the welfare of prison inmates. It is affiliated with Prison Fellowship International, a religious organisation that attempts to assist inmates’ psychosocial and spiritual needs.
It has been active for the past 25 years and has various functions.
One is to visit inmates who have no one to visit them in prison. Another, its Angel Tree Club, is to assist children who have parents in prison. It is also involved in spiritual meetings in prison, educational campaigns among students to prevent criminality, donating goods to inmates and aftercare for former inmates. Prison Fellowship also welcomes volunteers to join its mission.
To value the importance of these initiatives, one must investigate the broader context of prison policy in Malta.
For example, as things stand there is practically no aftercare for former inmates who leave prison to face a brave new world as isolated lonely individuals. This has been said to me be various practitioners in the field over the past years and was also a major finding of a sociological dissertation I had supervised some years ago.
Only a few days ago on Boxing Day, Malta’s state television, TVM, highlighted this through the story of a former inmate, Roderick Brincat, who had nowhere to go after ending his five-and-a-half-year prison sentence. There were times when he wished to go back to prison.
He left prison seven years ago but is still homeless and hungry. He hopes that the art lessons he had in prison will help empower him to a better life, but it is difficult.
Malta cannot permit that some former inmates face homelessness, that others are penniless, and some even end up dependent on networks of criminality as they have nowhere else to go.
This partly explains the very high level of recidivism in Malta’s prisons, where reportedly, about 66 per cent of inmates are repeat offenders, one of the highest in the world, and where 17 per cent of former inmates are recidivists, the most common reason for which is drug abuse, followed by antisocial associates.
It is also important to note that studies confirm that intergeneration crime is quite common in Malta. This refers to criminal behaviour that is transferred across generations within families.
In the meantime, the government has proposed a prison reform, which includes the concept of earned privilege system and gives rights to inmates depending on their behaviour. While I agree that one’s agency should be factored in prison policy, the basic rights of inmates should always be guaranteed, and the reward system should be transparent, independently reviewed and truly meritocratic.
Besides, the gratuity given to inmates should be reviewed to ensure that it is truly enough to cover their basic needs as from their first day in prison.
I also believe that investment in crime prevention policies and prison education should be stepped up and be more in synch with inmates’ needs and aspirations. Both academic and vocational education should be prioritised together basic life skills such as parenting and money management. Sport and paid work should be given more emphasis, and the work of practitioners, including professional staff, academics and volunteers needs to be given more value.
Another growing problem is the increase of foreign inmates who have no social networks in Malta. Some do not speak Maltese or English and are practically alone in prison. Assistance from good-willed volunteers who are willing to spend time with such inmates should be a welcome form of social integration.
Ultimately the success of Malta’s prison system boils down to what type of prison we want. Should it be simply a place of punishment, or should it assist prisoners to reform themselves, thus helping them become better citizens who can integrate in society once they have paid their dues? I believe in the latter, and for this reason I thank organisations such as Prison Fellowship for their selfless work in the field. I appeal to readers to give a helping hand to such organisations.