Taking Daniel Holmes seriously - Mark Anthony Falzon

Taking Daniel Holmes seriously - Mark Anthony Falzon

Daniel Holmes was released from prison two weeks ago. The Welshman was 28 when he was arrested in Gozo in 2006 for growing cannabis plants. In 2011, he was fined €23,000 and served a 10-and-a-half-year prison sentence. Over the years, his case has been flagged a number of times by the press in Malta and Britain. Questions have been asked about the consistency of evidence and the heft of the sentence, among other things.

I do not know the circumstances of the arrest, and anyway I am not a lawyer. What follows is not about the legal aspects of the case. Nor is it some kind of veiled call for the legalisation of recreational cannabis use.

I happen to think it is not a particularly brilliant idea to get hooked on cannabis. I know some who smoke it regularly without any apparent adverse effects, but I know others who experienced serious memory loss and a general deterioration of mental health. Given that the mind governs individual and social behaviour, I’d stay away.

What I am really interested in are the conditions of Holmes’s time. They tell us something about the state of our prisons that deserves to be taken seriously. My source is a first-class documentary film called Daniel Holmes: The Long Way Home.

Released a few days ago, it is based on a long and fairly candid interview with Holmes in which he talks about how he managed to keep it together in a place that seems to be designed to do to inmates the opposite.

A part of it must be down to his resilience. Holmes comes across as a perfectly decent and resolute sort who spent much of his time in prison working, writing poetry and keeping a diary. It must have helped that, throughout, he kept his sights on a future with his young family.

Daniel and Marzena met while he was on bail and working as a chef. They married in prison three years into his sentence. Their second daughter, Blossom, who he first saw when she was three months old, was the result of a rare private meeting between the couple, in prison.

There is a particularly poignant moment in the film when Holmes sees his daughters’ room in their terraced home in Wales for the first time. He is immediately drawn to a box in a corner of the room which is full of Playmobil dolls and toys. The toys, and the diaries, had been his way of filling some of the absence in his children’s lives.

Which brings me to the first matter. It is not unusual for people who visit prisoners to be gifted Playmobil toys, usually a doll or two. That’s because assembling these toys is the only chance inmates get to work and earn some money. A good idea, then?

Not really. Holmes’s hands are covered in calluses, the result of years of sitting on his bed for up to 12 hours a day, clicking plastic toys into shape. They came, he says, in batches of 2,000 that each took up to three days to go through. For every 1,000 dolls that he assembled, Holmes was paid €13, or less when bits and pieces went missing.

We’ve sort of just accepted that prison is not just a loss of freedom, but also an assault on human dignity

Thing is, Playmobil toys don’t come cheap in the shops. There was a time in my life not so long ago when they accounted for a portion of my salary. If I remember well, each doll cost a couple of euros; themed boxed sets cost much, much more than that.

Now I know that there is more to toys than the cost of assembly. Products have to be researched and developed, raw materials bought, and so on. Still, €13 for a thousand pieces sounds rather an obscene pittance to me. I don’t see what else I might call it if not slave labour.

It’s mad, really. In prison, none of the usual standards of decent wages, rights of workers, and such, seem to apply. We’ve sort of just accepted that prison is not just a loss of freedom, but also an assault on human dignity.

Holmes was not alone when he was arrested. His flatmate and horticultural partner, Barry Lee, was taken in for the same offence. Unlike Holmes, his family did not have the means to bail him out. Lee committed suicide in prison while awaiting trial. He knotted plastic bags together and hanged himself from a piece of wood lodged in a ventilator.

In the interview, Holmes speaks at length about his friend. Lee simply did not have the mental resilience to bear conditions in prison. He found himself completely isolated in the cell that would become his death chamber, his only consolation the various kinds of medication prescribed by a system that would not take him seriously.

Which raises a question. How are we to reconcile the ongoing campaign for mental health with the fact that hundreds of people are routinely and deliberately denied access to it? ‘Fittex l-għajnuna’ (‘seek help’), the slogans tell us, except it can’t be easy to seek help when you’re locked up with very little contact with the outside world.

Daniel Holmes is now in Wales, reunited with the family that was his spiritual sustenance for so many years. I wish him well. Fact remains, however, that his case is still open. As I write, there are people sitting on beds working for a few euros a day whose only way out is an air vent.


This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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