It must be the easiest PR job in the world to discredit a convicted felon. If your whistle-blower resided in a prison, the likelihood that they are lifetime victims of injustice is extremely slim if you’re not watching a cheap Hollywood trope.
But only convicted felons can be the victims of prison abuse. They are the only people who can be blow whistles about conditions in detention. The rest of us out here are armchair analysts that try to interpret what little emerges from the hermetically sealed time-bomb that is Kordin.
I first got interested after reports emerged in 2019 of mistreatment in Kordin of migrants that had rebelled over conditions in Ħal Safi and sent to prison for that offence. Already the rebellion in Safi, where prisoners burned their own beds, was clearly a case of attention-grabbing self-harm. And then stories out of Roots of chain gangs of naked men hosed down like animals in the Kordin courtyard suggested to me that on arrival the migrants were being told that whatever spirit may have driven them to protest in Safi would be broken in Kordin.
I started to ask around. I spoke to people who worked in prison who whispered stories of systemic abuse, of psychological violence, and in some cases of contrived situations where prisoners who needed protection were, apparently by design, placed in situations where they could and would kill themselves.
This detail was particularly galling to me. You had situations where prisoners happened to have thinning fluid in their cells the day they died, or happened to check themselves out of the psychiatric ward days before they were found dead in their prison cell.
And then there was the sheer number. Prisoners were dying like flies. By the time 7 prisoners died, I felt the matter was alarming. After all it is reasonable to think that suicides would be the tip of a far more treacherous iceberg. Served with the same level of torture and abuse, most prisoners would not necessarily kill themselves. There are other ways of absorbing that sort of extended trauma, although that didn’t mean that the psychological wounds inflicted on them would be any less severe. The injustice of it all would matter no less.
What really got me interested though was the secrecy and the refusal to even acknowledge my questions and my requests to see for myself conditions in which prisoners were being kept. Secrecy meant there was something they needed to hide.
They needed to hide, as best as they could, Alex Dalli, the director of prisons. I honestly am tired of crafting explicit descriptions of this buffoon. The way he walks into a courtroom when he escorts Yorgen Fenech, sporting oversized bullet proof vests, his airs, his self-importance, his attention-grabbing mania, the medals carrying his family arms, his colonial sword, his military ranks, his exhibition wall of improvised weapons, his visible side arm inside and outside prison, his theatre, are chilling glimpses into the mind of a latter-day Idi Amin.
You can’t hide a man like that. You can’t repress an ego that relishes their space on newspapers, rejoices in saying things on television he would later be made to insincerely apologise for.
The death of the 13th suicide during his tenure is unsurprising. It is tragic and a painful reminder of the horrors that go on in Kordin every day. But since nothing changed since death number one or death number 12, death number 13 was inevitable. As will be the next suicide.
In the days between the attempt of this most recent suicide and its tragic conclusion yesterday, the victim’s prison buddy served his time and the first thing he did with his freedom is to give an interview to Times of Malta. The whistle-blower was not the type to deal with the torture in prison with killing themselves. He’s the type to speak up and damned be the consequences.
Including the consequences he can expect at his next sojourn under their watch.
His devil may care attitude comes out in the crimes he has committed and the crimes he may yet commit. But it also comes out in his refusal to take the abuse while in prison lying down. They’re using all that against him. Prison officials are leaking to the Labour-leaning press recordings of the prisoner shouting abuse at wardens, of course without providing context and what it was that caused his anger. Today, l-orizzont publishes photos of graffiti the interviewee is supposed to have scribbled on his cell wall. They amount to threats to the wardens that they would regret the abuse he was made to suffer.
The forensic usefulness of this “evidence” is of course zilch. But even taking the recordings and the photos at face value as representative of what the interviewee did before he was released from prison, his actions would be consistent with the story he told.
Because if you’re submitted to consistent abuse and unfair treatment you either give up and kill yourself or not give up and speak up.
For fascists like Simon Mercieca this is lily-livered sympathy with criminals against officials of the state. Especially for fascists like Simon Mercieca whose business is not to discredit prisoners or convicted felons necessarily, but to discredit journalists and people who do not accept unquestioningly all and any actions of the authorities.
It is no wonder that Simon Mercieca has started a campaign to discredit Matthew Xuereb, the Times of Malta journalist who interviewed the whistle-blower. The fact is the interview was a very important step in the collective effort of many journalists to overcome the wall of secrecy erected by the government around Alex Dalli and his regime. Simon Mercieca thinks it’s some seditionist action to undermine public authority.
Public authority which is abusive, illegal, and acts in breach of fundamental rights deserves to be defied. It is the function and obligation of journalists to expose it. And journalists can only do it on the back of information provided by their sources. In prison, sources can only be prison staff or prisoners. Both sets live in the shadow of Alex Dalli’s tyranny. I’m not sure which set has more to lose.
What is truly maddening here is why the government, the home minister, the prime minister, even ordinary MPs supporting the government, continue to refuse to act. The fact that stories in defence of Alex Dalli pop up on the media that the Labour Party owns or controls, from One TV, through TVM, l-orizzont and Simon Mercieca, means that the government sees this as just another PN v PL story.
It just isn’t. People are dying for crying out loud. Is it possible that the government cares more about allowing the PN to say it had been right about the need of action in the prison, than about stopping the torture that has forced 13 people to end their own lives from destroying and killing other people?
Is it possible that they calculate that most people don’t care about prisoners killing themselves, and given the obvious outcome of that calculation, decide not to care themselves either?
Why can’t they just see sense?