(This might be one of the longest pieces on this blog, which is not notorious for the brevity of its wit. So keep this one for when you have the time for it. I trust you’ll find it’s worth your effort).

I walked up to the prison door in the blazing sun of yesterday afternoon. A security guard in the pillbox outside waved me to the door. He was expecting me. I put my mask on and sanitised my hands in the pink, gooey soap they provided and walked up to the tempered glass window presenting my ID card as the instructions outside demanded.

I was given my card back and a tag on a lanyard to hang around my neck. I was given a small key for a locker in which to place my belongings. Since I wasn’t allowed to carry my phone with me, I didn’t bring it. I only needed the locker for my car keys.

I carried my asthma inhaler that was waved through and a notebook, mostly blank, except for some notes scribbled on the first few pages with the questions I planned for the prison chief. I also carried a pen, the cheapest a stationer could supply. The notebook and the pen created some kerfuffle at first. The guard said his instructions were not to allow me to carry anything. I didn’t have time to insist though because the prison’s deputy chief, Randolph Spiteri, showed up to greet me and cleared my notebook and pen for admittance.

I stood on a body scanner. Legs apart, arms resting on hand rails alongside. It wasn’t just looking for metals the way an airport scanner would woosh around you. This scanner did not move around you. You moved around it. My entire weight was shifted horizontally as if I was on a slow, determined luggage conveyor belt. I was asked not to move as I was moved in front of a vertical line I could feel look through me like a close-up in a Sergio Leone film.

Satisfied I wasn’t carrying anything that wasn’t regulation besides my shoe-laces and leather belt, I was whisked up to the second floor of the “new” prison building and into the office of the prison’s deputy chief. (The “new” building is a 1990s extension built across a courtyard from the Victorian prison built by the British in the 1870s. That one is known as the “old” prison”). The chief was stuck at a meeting outside but would soon be on his way. I sipped on a cold glass of water as I was treated to an introduction by number 2.

In the few minutes that I waited, prison chief Alex Dalli called his deputy twice to tell him he was on the way and to make sure I was getting the right treatment. Presently, he showed up and invited me over to his office. There were around 8 other officials in the room, spread evenly and covid-safely in the sprawling office. Alexander Dalli was going to have witnesses for this conversation, or at least an audience.

He sat at right angles to me, well within the recommended two metre distance. He wore a mask which kept his chin warm but his airways unhindered. He wore a black suit and white shirt with no tie. A silver pin that looked like a miniature sheriff’s badge completed the outfit. At one point during our interview he apologised for his attire. He had a meeting in town which he needed to dress for. In prison he’s usually in “shorts, t-shirt and gym shoes,” he said, “or to encourage esprit de corps, I wear the uniform of my prison team.”

‘Esprit de corps’ would be a term that Alex Dalli would bring up many times during our 90-minute conversation. At first I assumed he meant it as a management term, the way MBA graduates borrow from military jargon and adapt that phraseology to fancy leadership manuals. Alex Dalli meant it literally.

His background was military, he said. He was in the army for 25 years, and the culture and the systems he imbibed in all that time governed the way he ran his business. That is why he gifted performing officers with medals he purchased out of his own pocket on a trip to Poland. It was his way of answering the report that he placed his personal family coat of arms on the gifts he handed out to his staffers. Which I thought then, and continue to think, was a ridiculous thing to do. The prison is not Alexander Dalli’s. To find out why he doesn’t agree, read on.

In one of many of his standing flourishes, he drew my attention to the back of his office door, where he hung samples of shoulder boards and rank slides for a hierarchical pyramid of some dozen ranks of prison guard. That was still a twinkle in his eye: to negotiate a new collective agreement for his staff that would see them ranked in his model army. The term “collective agreement” is obviously incongruous. Military ranks are established by regulation not by negotiation with a union. That too showed the gulf between Alex Dalli’s fancy and the reality he needed to work in.

He made it a point to remind me that between his retirement from the army in 2008 and his appointment to run the prison just under three years ago, he worked for many years at the sea vessel tracking operation run by Transport Malta. He got the job, he made sure I recall, when I was Austin Gatt’s head of secretariat at the transport ministry.

Naturally, I didn’t recall. Such purely professional or technical appointments were not a matter for a minister’s political office at the time. But Alex Dalli thought he could give me a reason to remember when there was a time I liked him. I never knew he existed.

“But my 25 years in the army, made me who I am. You see, I was a pilot and I put together the search and rescue capability at the army. That’s what I am,” Alex Dalli told me as he gesticulated emphatically, “I am a rescuer.”

As he became more and more agitated, I felt compelled to try to diffuse the tension, using the involuntary defence mechanism of all socially awkward people: looking away from him. My eyes fell on the first thing I noticed when I walked into his office, erratically reflecting beams of light from the sun outside. I had been waiting for a time to be able to look away from the man Dalli and to observe instead this big shiny thing at the far end of his office.

Just next to the director’s desk, a large cork-board, some 3 metres by two, mounted on wheels, displays a vast array of hand-held weapons. Knives, improvised sharp tools, watches, screw-drivers, cork screws, even lids of large kitchen tins folded into a shape held safely by its handler with a jagged edge on its far side. The watches seem incongruent in the collection, perhaps because my imagination is too limited to see how a major artery could be severed using those. Otherwise, that was the common utility that seemed to apply to the rest of those tools.

It looked like the toolkit of a mad scientist. Or an exhibition of torture in a chamber of horrors for pre-pubescent tourists. I could guess it was a collection of sequestered blood-letting prison contraband. But why hang it next to the director’s desk?

As I figured a thousand ways to kill someone and got stuck on the application of wrist watches for anything but reading the time, Alex Dalli’s escalating voice called me back to attention. “Let’s not mince words,” he warned. “When I came in two and half years ago, the prison was bursting at the seams with drugs. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve cleaned up the house. This prison was run half-heartedly. I brought back order here.

“But I’m just the glue,” another metaphor that would come up again a number of times. “I work with the team that I have and the success is not just my success. It’s these people’s success.”

At this point Alexander Dalli stood up again out of his armchair. He walked around his senior managers, patting them on the back, indicating them as he told me their names, in some cases their area of responsibility and, incredibly, their political affiliation.

“He is one of my best men,” he pointed at one of his managers. “Nazzjonalist,” he said, leaving the term hanging there as if that would clarify anything for me. “Nobody’s perfect,” I quipped, lamely. But the point begged the question. “Was this management team here before you?” I asked Alex Dalli. “Yes. I only brought in two managers since my appointment, and one of them has since left.”

Alex Dalli’s presentation on his work said his mission rested on four “pillars”: administration and operations, security, care and re-integration and “prison industry”. They sounded more like departments than a programmatic vision but it helped the director structure the information he wanted to give me.

But before, above and pervading all of that, there was one project and one outcome that to him mattered more than anything. “There are no drugs in prison now. We know it. We can smell the drugs because we would see the movement of people trying to buy it or sell it. We call it ‘the movement of drugs’. We also know the place is clean from urine testing. And we know there are no drugs because we haven’t had a proper fight in prison for months. Drugs, you see,” Alex Dalli told me as he stood over me, “are the root of all evil.”

How did he do it? The prison director went on to describe his regime of discipline. He described it as ‘the way you teach children’. You reward good behaviour with ‘privileges’, and you punish bad behaviour by taking them away.

I asked him, “is it true that you have used the phrase ‘we must teach them the meaning of fear’ when referring to the relationship with prisoners?” His first answer was a categorical no. But he later justified the phrase. “Fear is a good thing. It makes you do good, like the fear of God.” “Are you comparing the fear you have introduced in prison with the fear of God?” I asked. “No. That’s not what I meant,” he clarified.

Later, on the tour of the prison, one of his managers brought the subject up again and spoke for his boss. “I think the director meant ‘fear of consequence’. Prisoners must know that if they do drugs or fight, there will be consequences.”

I was interested in those consequences. They were a big reason for my visit. “Is it true there’s a punishment chair?” I asked. “No.” Another categorical answer. Another answer soon qualified by a justification for a chair, with restraints, used for punishment. “But it’s not a punishment chair,” his voice came back, now shrilly.

His number 2 brought him a dog-eared copy of the prison regulations. Section 69 says “the use of chains and irons shall be prohibited. Handcuffs, restrain-jackets and other body restraints shall not be applied as a punishment.”

It did not feel much of a justification for the now implicitly confirmed existence of a chair with leather belts to restrain wrists and ankles. But the regulations do permit the use of restraints “by order of the Director, if other methods of control fail, to prevent a prisoner from injuring himself or others, damaging property or creating a disturbance.”

Whatever it’s termed, a chair for restraint does appear to exist. Alexander Dalli told me this is normal in other prisons “everywhere”. He denied the person in restraint is kept where other prisoners can see them, and he insisted it was “only used once and then for a few minutes”.

“But the deterrent is there,” he said going back to the topic of fear as a tool.

“Have you carried a side arm on the prison grounds?” I asked.

The question is obviously pregnant. Global prison standards say civilian prisons should be run by civilians, not military people. The regimentation of a military camp does not help rehabilitation and if anything is as unlike the world outside as things could possibly be, making readjustment to the outside world harder. And the threat of guns and weapons by prison authorities, brutalises prisoners legitimising and normalising the idea that it’s the man with the gun that wins the argument. My question on Alex Dalli’s side arm, therefore, confronted the choice of turning a civilian prison into a military boot camp: even a drug-infested civilian prison into a drug-free military boot camp.

At my question he scowled and drew back on his arm chair. His eyes glowered and his pale pallor reddened. He clenched the arms of his chair, notably without leather restraints, and answered, in the original Maltese “mhux affarik”. ‘None of your business’.

In my book, that’s a yes. Doubly so when Alex Dalli stood up again in another of his intemperate outbursts and pointed dramatically to the big board with the bowie knives, serrated tin tops and deceptively and menacingly innocuous wrist watches.

“The prison is different from the rest of the country,” Alex Dalli declared.

I remember a time when the public was being educated to destigmatise prisoners by letting go of the archaic noun “il-ħabs” and to move to “correctional facility”. “Dan ħabs!” Alex Dalli screeched.

“Are you threatened?” I asked Alex Dalli. The question got an ironic chuckle from the entire room. It was a stupid question. Of course, they’re threatened. The question I should have asked is whether allowing prisoners to see his side arm on prison grounds was the best way to manage the threat any prison director naturally needed to live with. It was not the question I asked.

“Is it true you stripped the migrants imprisoned last October and hosed them down in the courtyard?” I asked. Alex Dalli replied carefully. There’s an ongoing inquiry into the case and the matter was sub judice. I didn’t point out to him that an inquiry is not a judicial process and therefore the matter was not, in fact, pending a court judgement. After all, respecting the inquiry process is just a good excuse as any not to answer questions.

But elsewhere in our interview he did declare unambiguously to me that in all the time he’s run the prison the baton or the water hose were never, ever used. In practice I would call that a denial of the November Times of Malta story. I wondered momentarily why he was telling me this now and not to the Times of Malta last November, but before I could ask, there was another standing tirade as he paced in circles in front of me lamenting how poorly understood the reality within the prison is, outside of it.

“Is it true that the tough wing of the prison that you use for punishing troublemakers, is the same place where all new prison arrivals spend their first two weeks?” Alex Dalli knew why I was asking that question.

Division 6 is the most notorious circle of the particular hell he manages.

A 2011 inspection of Division 6 by the Committee to Prevent Torture of the Council of Europe said that “material conditions were quite simply appalling in Division 6, where most of the cells, intended to be used for single occupancy only, were accommodating two inmates. There was hardly any access to natural light, and access to both artificial lighting and ventilation were poor. The cells were only equipped with one bed and another mattress, placed on the floor (and a blanket for each inmate), and an unpartitioned floor toilet. In addition, the toilet flush did not work in some of the cells.”

In 2015, the CPT inspectors were relieved to be told Division 6 had been closed down altogether.

It’s certainly not closed down. In Division 6, prisoners are locked-up for 23 hours in the day, at this time of year in intolerable heat particularly on the top floor. Reportedly, toilet facilities are unsuitable for farm animals. Like the chair which the director refuses to call “punishment chair”, Division 6 is used as a threat to prisoners in all other wings. It’s where you’re sent if you step out of line.

Why is that the ideal place for every prisoner to start serving their sentence? An expert who does not work for Malta’s prison department told me most suicides happen in the first few days of a long prison sentence. They are the toughest time as adjustment is hardest. To prevent suicides, the director confirmed information I had had from sources that some prisoners were made to stay naked all the time, without sheets or blankets or any means of covering themselves in full view of everyone else. It seems an archaic way of preventing self-harm. These methods have been “reintroduced” to Corradino.

Alex Dalli told me that this initial stay at Division 6 would allow his staff to assess the health and the level of security threat of the new inmates. In Covid times, Division 6 doubles as a quarantine area. But he also again spoke of his policy of fear. “They need to see they’re in prison now,” and he shows them that by locking them up in its worst corner.

“Would Division 6 pass the text of a new CPT inspection?” I asked Alex Dalli. “Yes,” he answered categorically. “I think so,” he then said deflatingly.

On the matter of CPT inspections, I reminded Alex Dalli of conditions at the Valletta lock-up which was used during the covid lock-down as a proper prison. The CPT was shocked at the state of it even though prisoners would only be kept there for a few hours while they waited for their cases to be heard in the court building upstairs.

Last March people were sleeping and living at the Valletta lock-up, in close quarters with buckets of excrement, their own and everyone else’s.

Alex Dalli told me it wasn’t true conditions in Valletta were bad. He had just put in some improvements lately but the spending 23 hours with buckets of shit bit was true. “After all,” he told me, “during Covid even I had to piss in a bucket”. After the interview he would take me to the cell where he spent the nights during the weeks of prison isolation.

Alex Dalli brought up the matter of unexpected deaths in prison himself, without waiting for my inevitable question. It wasn’t true 8 people died in prison during his tenure, he said. His deputy, Randolph Spiteri said “it was actually only 2”. He wasn’t amplifying on his definition of “death in prison”, so I tested his terminology by mentioning a name: Ben Ali Wahid Ben Hassine.

“He didn’t die in prison,” Randolph Spiteri declared with more than a little self-satisfaction. Ah, I thought, so that’s what you mean. Wahid, as he was known, was serving a life sentence. He was taken to hospital after, it is reported, he poisoned himself with paint thinner. He self-administered the poison inside his cell inside the prison. It was left there in spite of the fact that he was being treated for depression. But Waild expired at Mater Dei. “He didn’t die in prison.”

To my mind then, we’re back to 8 unexplained deaths, most likely suicides, happening under the custody of Alex Dalli’s prison management, whatever the puerile spin put on the matter.

I prepared specific questions on the cases of Wahid and of Noel Calleja, found hanged in his cell 13 days after Alex Dalli talked him into checking himself out of the forensic unit of Mount Carmel Hospital and checking himself back into the custody of the man with the gun.

But Alex Dalli said the two deaths were the subject of pending inquiries, two of a stunning 25 inquiries Alex Dalli told me were ongoing into the business of the prison he ran. He would not answer specific questions on matters that were being investigated in inquiries.

I asked a question then that would not be specific to cases. “Do you believe there has been a systemic failure that allowed so many prisoners to die or cause their own death on prison grounds during your tenure, in numbers not seen before? Or is this really a freak statistic that doesn’t properly represent your performance?”

Alex Dalli answered that “we try to be everywhere all the time, but that’s not possible.” Two of his managers jumped to his aid. “Suicides are on the increase within all of society,” one of them said. “Before working in prison, part of my job was removing the bodies of people who had hurled themselves to death,” another said unhelpfully.

I was left with the presumption of comforting statistical indicators but was not provided with any. It would be unfair to suggest I didn’t feel there was profound regret in the room for the deaths that have occurred, even and especially, by Alex Dalli. He wanted to point out just how many suicides his staff managed to prevent or interrupt. He told me that for every death recorded, 15 lives were saved but then he regretted saying that worrying he would sound like he considered the people who died as statistics, mere units on the plate that shoots up in a balance of survivors. His disappointment and regret for the deaths under his watch is real. He cares.

But he accepts no responsibility for the unexpected deaths under his watch.

I felt the interview was about to draw to a close when Randolph Spiteri returned from a brief exeunt with a small black plastic box sporting the arms of the prison on the front. It was a gift pen, I presumed was intended for me in case I complained Terry Muscat got better treatment when she visited before me. Terry Muscat was foremost on Alex Dalli’s mind at this point. “We’re treating you better than Terry,” he said. “You’re getting a prison tour”.

I asked what I would be allowed to see. Would I be able to tour Division 6? “No.” I didn’t get an explanation for that one. Merely a slow, operatic gesture, like the refusal of clemency from a capricious prince. “How about Division 5?” I wanted to see what conditions were in maximum security. For that one I was later pulled aside and given a plausible reason for the refusal. It was for my own safety. There are inmates there it would be wise for me not to meet because of my journalism work.

“How about toilet facilities in Divisions 2 and 3?”

Clearly this tour was pre-planned. I wasn’t going to be allowed to verify with my own eyes the reports I have received of over-crowding, poor sanitary conditions and signs of degrading treatment.

Instead Alex Dalli took me to see the prison “kitchen”. Several times on the way there, he insisted with me that prisoners and guards working there were not forewarned of our visit. I saw his point when we got there. There were about 20 people in the room, 4 or so in black uniforms, the rest in light blue scrubs marking them out as prisoners. They weren’t cooking as much as assembling prepared food: large hot dogs, folded into bread rolls, baked beans poured on top and wilted chips on the side.

But what was most noticeable to me was the eerie, gaunt quiet. While we were there not a word was said, not a sound except for the gentle squelch of Styrofoam containers being closed for transportation to the prison wings.

There was the atmosphere of an ancient monastery with an irrevocable vow of silence, broken only on pain of Boschian horror.

As we walked away from the kitchen, to the next attraction on this tour, Alex Dalli pointed out to me the cleanliness of the courtyard, the complete void of any idle presence, of anyone wondering about, of anyone there at all. When Alex Dalli moved in the prison over two years ago he ordered the disposal of 55 containers-full of junk: old and disused inventory material which, judging from the asbestos that it contained, had been piling up since the 1970s.

As I was taking all this in, Alex Dalli took me to another section where I confess I briefly tasted the fear of his policies. I walked through a narrow passage, not much wider than myself, with dog kennels on either side. Some of them must have been trained to assault fat men with beards. A huge dog, not less than half my height, jumped up to the metal door of its kennel, its fangs snapping at my ear. I could smell the vicious anger on its drooling tongue. I reeled instinctively to the opposite side only to be greeted by another, angrier dog.

I could only feel relief this tour did not happen before the interview, rather than now after it almost ended. In a clearing, in the “canine unit”, I was shown how thorough the cleaning regime was. “I banned mops,” Alex Dalli told me now uncomfortably close to my face and mingling in my confusion with the gnashing jaws of man-eating dogs. I wasn’t thinking clearly. For a moment I wondered whether “mops” were some new-fangled drugs I hadn’t heard of that he had managed to eradicate from prison with all that heroin.

He meant the cleaning sticks with a head of absorbent universally used to wash the floor. “Mops don’t clean. We use brooms, water and squeezers here. I want this place to be like a hospital.”

He wasn’t wrong. The little I had seen of the prison was spotless. You could safely eat off the floor. I can’t say how it was before Alex Dalli came in, but if you were inspecting what I was allowed to see for cleanliness you’d have nothing to complain about. I felt he was justified to say that the cleaning regime he introduced was a big part of the reason that no single prisoner was detected with a Covid infection in spite of massive routine swabbing.

From the “canine unit” we proceeded to the entrance of the old prison. I wanted to visit this, not least because of the architectural interest of its Victorian design. As you step in the building, on your left there is a plaque bearing the names of the directors of the prison starting in 1870. The list stops with the director who ran the place in 1976, the year I was born.

Then, at the end of that list, the marble plaque bears a new heading “Diretturi Ġenerali” followed by the only name that can fit in the remaining space: “Lt. Col. Alexander Dalli Rt’d”. There was no one with me who could answer the question why directors from 1976 to 2017 stopped recording their names on that wall. I didn’t need to ask Alexander Dalli his reasons for putting his own down.

“I love history” he had told me a few minutes before, as he showed me the sword he was filmed sporting some months ago. He said he had found it in prison and “restored” it. The sword is “from 1925”, he said. “If you remove the ceremonial, you will lose the esprit de corps.” That phrase again. Swords from other centuries need adding to management manuals.

Opposite the plaque bearing forgotten names and his, outside the old office of the prison director, hangs a picture of Alexander Dalli’s family coat of arms. Again. Like the coins he had handed out.

“When I came here two years ago,” Alex Dalli told me, “I took ownership of the place.” Of all his many succinct and self-referential quotes, his theatrical gestures of standing and pacing as he speaks, the time he slapped my knee as a conspiratorial gesture that meant the opposite of what it said, and the way he made his most strongly held views by speaking them an inch or two from my face, this was his most eloquently emphatic.

“I took ownership of the place.” Perhaps, I thought, that phrase doesn’t quite mean what you think it means, Lt. Col. Alexander Dalli, Rt’d.

Adjacent to the disused old director’s office is a cell with a single bed and iron gates. I surmised it was a cell used by Victorian and Edwardian directors working over-time. “I slept there during Covid,” Alex Dalli told me. “I pissed in a bucket when I needed to, and emptied it in the morning.”

We went on our last stop on the tour. It was time for the prisoners’ supper. They were lining up in their wings to get their hot dogs and chips. In the old part of the prison three wings fan out from a central internal courtyard. The wings are separated from the courtyard by huge metal doors that were shut. I saw prisoners behind the gates, lining up, quietly. There were hundreds of them, perhaps 300 or so.

And again, strikingly, the quiet. People talked, in whispers, the sort aspired to but never achieved by a tired school master in a boy’s secondary school. You may not have heard a pin drop. But you would have seen it. The cleanliness was here too, striking. Alex Dalli brushed his finger over an iron gate, checking for dust like a white-gloved butler in a stately home.

And then, almost three hours after I had stepped in to Alex Dalli’s army camp, the prison which he owned, it was time for him to escort me out again.

I could not see for myself the tyranny some of his staffers spoke to me about. In my presence he did not shout at his staff, cussed at them in front of prisoners and humiliated them with awkward routines.

There was no opportunity for me to witness any real engagement with prisoners. At the interview he admitted to me he made big burly men settle their differences by making pinkie promises like school children, kissing their little fingers as if they’d just nicked their school bench mate’s My Little Pony. All that while their cell mates guffawed at their expense. He told me this proudly, unconcerned with the worry of staffers who told me that sort of humiliation tended to bounce back.

I never saw him showing his side arm. It was, I was told, none of my business.

I saw “the privileges” he used as rewards, but never saw the dark threat of fear that he used as punishment.

I saw the clean floor of the central courtyard, but not the faecal mess in the buckets that amount to the only furniture of the prison’s “reception area”.

I saw what I can only believe is a drug-free prison, ruled with an iron fist of a military man who defies the cool stereotypes of a collected and rational military type. Instead I saw a passionate man, ruled by his emotions, suspicious of the science of prison management, preferring instead the ways he learnt in the army: crime and punishment, regimented routine, and a pyramid structure in which everyone is constantly reminded their place.

I saw a prison that meets the immediate political objectives of political masters who can’t live with the consequences of drugs in prison.

But what was kept away from my impertinent eyes was a pressure cooker, with a lid of hermetic isolation sealed on top of it. In the two years he’s been there, Alex Dalli blocked out the medical services provided by the health department. Instead he’s recruited his own psychologists, doctors and nurses that now report to him in a military structure. In doing that, he has managed to sever a safety line to the outside world, where abuse or the risk of it could reach our ears and help sent in if needed.

“The prison is not like any other place.” Perhaps that is an exaggeration. It seemed to me that it was only a more regimented way of the general approach to things of our country’s administration. We know how to make it look good. We know how to suppress problems and challenges and bury them under the appearances of the surface. We know how to keep our secrets and to keep them from prying eyes. In those ways at least, the prison is a model for any other place run by a government measured by the way it looks rather than by what it does.

This journalist has not breached the hermetic seal that protects the secrets of our prison. I cannot judge the conditions in which the state detains our prisoners. I can only give account to something we’ve not had before now: Alexander Dalli’s account of himself and his claim that the best way to restorative justice is fear.