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The life and times of the Drugs Queen

Josette Bickle’s weathered face paints a truer picture of her troubled life than the nefarious title she earned this week as queen of jail.

She earned her first police charge at the tender age of 13. Her crime was prostitution.She was following in the footsteps of the mother she barely knew, who was years ago also convicted of drug trafficking by a jury.

The eldest of six children, Ms Bickle spent the first 11 years of her life in and out of various children’s institutions. Most of this time was spent at Angela House, in Guarda­mangia where she immediately became a troublemaker who attracted regular punishments.

Eventually, she moved in with her grandmother in Msida, together with her siblings, who she helped raise. But this only facilitated her entry into the world of prostitution, as she soon dropped out of Sliema primary school and got in with the wrong crowd.

Faced with a 13-year-old prostitute with nowhere safe to go, the courts placed her under probation and ordered her to move in with the welcoming family of her 14-year-old boyfriend at the time.

But this did not provide the stability she required.

While other girls her age were making friends and preparing to leave secondary school, her boyfriend introduced her to cocaine and heroin, substances that would characterise the rest of her life.

Though she was in and out of court throughout her youth, she landed her first prison conviction for prostitution at 21. Whenever she was released, Ms Bickle would fall back into the only life she ever knew: drugs and prostitution.

Ms Bickle has no children.

When on the outside, Ms Bickle, 43, lived in a decrepit apartment in Valletta, where an eroded letter-box is testimony to the surrounding neglect.

But her real home seems to have been her prison cell, from where she operated a small drug racket with near impunity.

Her case sent shockwaves around the country this week when the scale of her operations was detailed in court, showing the scandalous ease with which she sold drugs to other inmates.

A jury found her guilty of drug trafficking and Mr Justice Michael Mallia jailed her for 12 years and fined her €23,000.

He spoke of a “failed” prison system with “nothing correctional about it”.

During the trial, one inmate described her as the “queen” because of the way everyone in prison feared her and let her do whatever she pleased.

During her stay in prison, she managed to obtain an extra empty cell in which she stored four TV sets, a surround sound system, DVDs and four lockers full to the brim of other items such as cigarettes and clothing. They were all profit from her drug trafficking business in prison.

Prison wardens were so scared of her that during drug inspections they would actually knock politely on her cell door and ask to enter, witnesses said.

As the judgement was read out, she was heard saying: “I did not do that badly.”

After being sentenced on Thursday, under the watchful gaze of the media, Ms Bickle waved as she was driven back to her “palace”.

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