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In the line of fire

Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici has to handle a number of hot potatoes. He speaks to Kurt Sansone about parole, prison conditions, strip searches and fireworks.

The Restorative Justice Bill published last week will introduce parole, which you said will help in the rehabilitation of inmates. Does this mean the Corradino Correctional Facility has failed in its job to reform prisoners?

It has not failed but with the instruments at hand it has not succeeded as much as we would have liked. Parole will give inmates the chance to reform. More importantly, parole benefits society because it ensures inmates will not be passive observers in prison and so it reduces the risk of them returning to jail after release.

Over the past two years we have worked towards administrative reform at the prison in preparation for the introduction of parole. My ministry set up a six-member taskforce that included three people outside the civil service to determine what administrative changes were necessary to be able to create a rehabilitation programme for individual prisoners.

A difficulty many released prisoners encounter is reintegrating into society. They are without a job, possibly even homeless and without any source of income, increasing the risk of them returning to the criminal path. How will parole help change this?

Parole is not the solution to all the problems. However, an important aspect of the reform is that inmates will be given the opportunity to undergo re-training. In this way people who entered prison with no skills would acquire new ones making it easier for them to find a job and be accepted by their families and society when they are back out.

Current legislation and prison regulations already speak of giving prisoners a rehabilitation programme that includes work in the prison and the possibility to study. What difference will the new law make?

Under the new law, the eligibility for parole, the possibility of it being granted and eligibility for remission (having a prison term reduced) will also depend on the inmate’s successful participation in the rehabilitation programme drawn up for him.

People may be concerned that early release from prison will be a bonus for criminals and bad for society. What is your reaction to these concerns?

It is a wrong perception. Not everybody who applies will automatically be granted parole. The person has to prove to the parole board that he has achieved the goals set out for him by the board. Society will gain from this process. The most important thing to remember is that most people in prison are not first time offenders but have been found guilty of committing multiple crimes. Society had to react in the face of this reality and the new law seeks to reduce the number of people who are dependent on crime.

Will victims of crime have any say in the decision to grant parole to the perpetrator?

Apart from being informed about the parole process, victims will also be meeting with the parole board. One of the parole eligibility criteria for those who committed a crime on an identifiable victim is whether the perpetrator would have tried to reconcile or in any way compensate for the damage caused. The inmate could also be granted parole on condition he participates in community work to help the victim.

This law, which also proposes a new victim support unit, gives victims of crime more weight than ever before. Today, victims are ignored by the system. This law will change that and make them an important and central player in the justice process.

Corradino is a correctional facility and yet we have heard serious allegations of abuse and that drugs are easily available. Is the use of the word ‘correctional’ a misnomer?

When Corradino was changed from a prison to a correctional facility, it showed the policymaker’s good intention to have a facility where people can be helped to reform. The things you mention are serious, have to be given weight and should be investigated and analysed. However, the bulk of the work in the facility focuses on rehabilitation. The new law tries to widen the scope of rehabilitation to reach everyone.

The offenders’ assessment board will be drafting an individual programme for all inmates to determine how and what type of help the inmate can be given. The idea is to try to give the person a better future so as not to return to a life of crime.

The parole legislation introduces the concept that rehabilitated drug addicts found guilty of a drug-related offence after coming clean would be immediately eligible for parole to avoid sending them back to prison, which some professionals in the drug field say is like sending them straight from the frying pan into the fire. Is the legislation an admission that prison is a hotbed for drugs?

Prison is not a hotbed for drugs but it is a known fact all over the world that prisons are constantly battling the drug phenomenon. Much is done in prison to tackle this problem. However, apart from allowing rehabilitated drug addicts the opportunity to immediately apply for parole, the new law also stipulates that a person seeking parole or wanting to qualify for remission should not test positive for drugs.

Over the past two years the number of random drug tests carried out in prison has increased, and I hope the proposed changes will act as a further deterrent. It will pay to stay clean.

Prisoner support group Mid-Dlam għad-Dawl recently voiced concern among other things about the state of 20 African men kept in Division 15 where they have to make do with only one toilet and one shower. Are these conditions decent for humans?

Prison currently houses a record number of inmates, which creates a problem to renovate certain cells and areas. The situation you mention, which involves a number of people jailed for crimes related to immigration, is a problem and there is a plan to completely renovate the whole wing.

Over the next three months we will be transferring the young offenders’ wing (Yours) out of the Corradino compound. Once this is done it frees up enough space to carry out changes in other wings, including the one you are referring to.

An issue that arose last year after the death of an inmate was the lack of a resident doctor. In a place with almost 600 people does it make sense not to have a doctor present at all times?

The prison currently has a contract with a group of doctors that costs some €160,000 a year. According to the contract, which was drawn up quite some time ago, these doctors are constantly on call. The criticism last year that the prison did not have a medical service was incorrect. Whether the service is good or bad is another matter.

Is the service acceptable?

There is a pending magisterial inquiry on a particular case that will delve into the matter. We will act depending on the conclusions of the inquiry. However, I have asked for better monitoring of the service to see whether it can be provided in a better way or else change it completely.

Why is the prison still run by an acting director?

It is an administrative matter. Vacancy calls in the civil service are only issued at certain periods and these have to follow strict procedures. There is an open call for a prison director.

Two local councillors were recently strip searched at the police depot before being interrogated on the misappropriation of a laptop. Were the strip searches justified in this case?

I will not enter into the merits of the particular case. The people making these claims have legal remedies they can pursue if they feel the police abused their power.

Do the police have guidelines on when and how strip searches should be conducted?

They do have guidelines and it is up to the custodial officer to decide according to the particular circumstances of the case whether to conduct a strip search or not. Although the allegations created alarm, the search is done in a particular room and people are not stripped completely naked at one go. There is a procedure how things are done.

The law stipulates that the detained individual should not have anything on his person which he can use to harm himself or others. Everybody can pass judgment but at the end of the day strip searches are an important tool to ensure the detained person is safe.

When I was appointed minister in 2008 I had on my plate a circumstance where a person was alleged to have died while in police custody. Strip searches are a necessity but in the circumstances I still felt the need to carry out an evaluation of the situation and will be speaking to senior police members on the issue in the coming days.

Some top criminal lawyers have described strip searches as abusive and tantamount to intimidation of detained people before interrogation.

I don’t think strip searches can be linked to intimidation. There are circumstances that justify strip searches and the law empowers the custodial officer to use his discretion.

But isn’t this the problem? Why should the custodial officer have discretion on this matter?

Discretion is used by the custodial officer taking responsibility for the detainee. Every case is different and it has to be kept in mind that the police meet all sorts of people. I do not believe it is intimidation because the law authorises the police to make use of strip searches.

The law is more restrictive than it ever was because the police have to record every step that involves the detainee such as the time of entry and exit from the depot, the time the interrogation was held and so on. It is obvious that whoever is arrested is miffed by the situation.

Arrested people are possibly at their most vulnerable.

I agree but today we have also introduced a mechanism that allows a detained person to consult his lawyer before an interrogation.

After last year’s firework accidents, especially the one in Għarb, we still have no explanation of what caused the blasts. Is this acceptable to you?

I had set up an inquiry board made up of experts to study the quality of the material used in fireworks and it is carrying out its work in a meticulous manner. I have to wait for its conclusions.

When will it conclude its work?

The sooner the better but I do not want them to do a hurried job. In this country we have had this situation for years and I am the only minister on record to have taken meaningful action to address issues in this sector. I introduced various provisions and mechanisms to control fireworks factories in a more stringent way than ever before.

I am waiting for the conclusions of this board to put a full stop on the matter and start a fresh line for the future. This is why I want to have good and strong recommendations to be able to reduce the risks associated with fireworks factories and reduce the bad practices adopted by some in this sector.

Society has asked me not to abolish fireworks but to control their production. To do so I have to have good recommendations to take the right decisions.

If doubts have been raised about the safety of the material used in fireworks production why didn’t you call for a moratorium until the board concludes its investigation?

A moratorium is counterproductive. These factories have scheduled jobs and if these are postponed, throughout the moratorium period there will be a higher risk of explosion.

In a couple of months’ time we will soon be entering a new feast season. How long are you prepared to wait for this board to conclude its work?

My wish is to have the report as soon as possible on my desk. However, I want to do a good job. When things are not done right we risk taking bad decisions and sometimes I get criticised for taking my time to get things done right. This is not a pleasant situation for me but I believe it was correct to set up this board and I expect them to do a good job.

Do you think the main problem stems from the fact that this is a highly specialised and sensitive sector run by amateurs with little chemical knowledge and no idea of scientific protocol?

Some of the people involved are more than capable in their work. Some have studied chemistry and have even gone abroad to lecture on fireworks production. However, there are others who are not competent.

Over the past few years I introduced a more intensive course for those wanting to obtain an A licence and for the first time ever the exams, which are being held now, are written. We will also be beefing up the B licence course to ensure that people entering fireworks factories have the knowledge and ability to carry out the work correctly.

The president of a leading fireworks factory in an interview with The Sunday Times last year said no government will ever take drastic decisions to curb fireworks. Why do these people feel so politically secure?

That comment was uncalled for because for as long as I have been minister I took decisions that regulated the sector in a more stringent way. This idea that enthusiasts have some form of political protection that will stop us from taking the necessary decisions is wrong. However, people have not asked me to ban fireworks but to introduce better controls and that is what I am doing.

Do you feel your political work in this field may be hindered by parliamentary colleagues on both sides of the political divide, who may occupy honorary posts on the committees of fireworks clubs? Are you involved in any way?

I am not involved and on many occasions, because I come from Cospicua where fireworks do not enjoy much of a tradition, I am criticised for not appreciating the work that goes into this sector. I feel this gives me an advantage over others who may be involved in some way because it gives me the freedom to be objective.

Watch excerpts on timesofmalta.com

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