Former prison inmate Meinrad Calleja breaks the silence on the prison system in the wake of director Sandro Gatt’s resignation
Former prison inmate and prisoners’ representative Meinrad Calleja has come out defending the director of the Corradino Correctional Facility, Sandro Gatt, who resigned from his post last Tuesday.
Declaring that he was prisoners’ representative before Emanuel Camilleri, known as Leli l-Bully, took over in 2006, Calleja – who spent 11 years in prison for drugs trafficking – says that contrary to the perception created in the last week, the position carries no underhand privileges.
“Generally he is chosen by consensus,” he says describing how a representative is chosen according to the system that has been in place more than a decade.
“Before me there was a certain Daniel Orsini. There are no elections as such, but any prisoner can become a representative and there were times when there was more than one. Also, a prisoner can also do without resorting to the representative and speak directly for himself. For example before I became a representative I never used the representative. You are not obliged to use him. He is there to help you whenever you find yourself blocked in other channels. If, say, you write to the director and he doesn’t call you in for a meeting, and it is something urgent that can’t wait; then you know the representative holds frequent meetings with the director and you can do it through him. The representative is meant to facilitate things. Instead of the director meeting some 20 prisoners, one would present him with their requests.”
And yet, a report on The Sunday Times last week claimed that Leli l-Bully “runs the show” at the Corradino Correctional Facility, just in the wake of revelations that a Dutch inmate was allegedly beaten up by prison warders after he escaped while on prison leave obtained through Camilleri as intermediary.
The report, together with an interview with the former chairman of the former prison board of visitors, precipitated the prison director’s resignation. By Tuesday he was back to the police force, as Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici promptly accepted his resignation, only to launch an investigation headed by none other than Gatt’s predecessor, Emanuel Cassar.
According to Calleja, not only Leli l-Bully is just following a long-established system of prisoners’ representation, but Gatt has also improved prison through gradual changes.
“When I was at Corradino, I saw several directors… Emanuel Cassar, Jim Roland, Peter Cordina. Sandro Gatt was the best one, in my opinion. He managed the prison with a great sense of discipline but introducing gradual changes; nothing radical or overnight. He was the director who respected human rights most. His mentality is not exclusively punitive. I know my opinion is shared by the majority of prisoners who think.”
Defending the system of prisoners’ representation, Calleja says it is a prisoner’s most effective way of making his requests known and heard, as opposed to the prison board of visitors which he slams as ineffectual.
“Although there are registers where you can file a request or ways of sending your complaints through prison officers or members of the prison board of visitors, you’ll never get anywhere, whereas through the prisoners’ representative you’ll manage to get things going.”
Calleja rummages among several letters he had written on inmates’ behalf, complaints to the Ombudsman, letters to the minister complaining of bureaucratic problems faced by individuals.
“A prisoner might need a mattress, for example, or have an urgent need to meet relatives… Leli has no say in whether it is acceded to or not, he just relays information. If anything, he shoulders the responsibility of having to face prisoners who at times may be granted a privilege which is then revoked, with the inmates ending up suspicious about whether he would have raised it with the director at all.
“It’s not true at all that Leli l-Bully was ever ‘running the show’; if anything the representative has to work more than the normal prisoner. I was still in prison when I handed over to Leli. He’s a hard-working inmate.
“Leli manages the bakery, he produces pastries, ice creams, he secured a government tender to start producing bread in prison, saving government some Lm40,000 a year, all through his initiative and personal work. It’s very taxing to represent prisoners as you’d have to face a lot of conspiracies and trouble.”
Among the problems with relying on prison officials and the prison board of visitors, Calleja says there is the issue of their “opinion” about a request to be forwarded to the prison director.
“It could be either they block it themselves if they disagree with an idea, or they put forward a request with their own ideas – that is a very regular problem we faced. Former prison board chairman Mario Felice for example in the interview he gave admitted that there were times when he would make requests to the prison director but would not succeed, whereas the prisoners’ representative would manage.
“There are also people internally who would seek ways of blocking something you’d need. It could be either personal pique, or that they view you as a threat to their power. They are usually warders – there are very few of such people. It’s a very small group, Sandro Gatt managed to get rid of many of them, but they would be people who have a different view of what prison should be like. To them it is just a place of punishment, prohibitions and military drills.”
Calleja insists that in Perry Toornstra’s case there was nothing out of order.
“There is a procedure to apply for prison leave. Given that he was a foreigner, he was excluded from prison leave. Now when it is an exceptional request and you make it through the representative, there is a higher chance that it is accepted. So all he did was ask Leli to bring up a one-off exceptional request. He was already refused many other requests, among which the application to go to university. He has been in prison for a long time, over 10 years, and he’s serving the last few years. He doesn’t get frequent visits given that he’s a foreigner, so when his mother came from abroad he requested to meet her on the day that also was her birthday. It’s a request of compassion that he made for the first time, and asked Leli to put it forward to the director.”
Appointing Cassar to investigate Gatt’s directorship is, perhaps, the most controversial point in all the story. During his time, Cassar faced one of the highest number of prison escapes and earlier this year he was found guilty by the Constitutional Court of having treated Meinrad Calleja in a degrading and inhuman way.
“It doesn’t inspire any trust at all,” Calleja says about Cassar’s appointment. “If there is anything pointing either at his past history or reflecting badly on the police, he will cover it up. He has been found guilty of breaching human rights. When he was director there was no transparency in prison. There was a lot of political interference, and it was a very mediocre management devoid of rationality and coherence. He had lots of escape attempts, suicide attempts, violence, riots and hunger strikes. I remember that when the Arab prisoners protested, they didn’t even want to speak to him, but only to the minister through an intermediary, who was Peppi Azzopardi. I can’t see how he can be objective in his investigation.”
Even Felice comes under Calleja’s criticism, whom he accuses of serving as a “smokescreen” in his long stint as prison watchdog.
“There were reports of two Libyans accused of rape who were beaten up upon their entry into prison. Mario Felice had investigated the claims as chairman of the visitors’ board. Investigations took him nine months and he had issued a report concluding that there was no proof of violence. One of the Libyans had ended up in ITU, but Felice’s investigation was inconclusive.
“Allegations of torture or beatings in prison have never been seriously investigated, neither by the previous director nor by Mario Felice. Prisoners did not have trust in Felice’s chairmanship. In January 2001, for example, Felice and his board resigned collectively, but it was a charade. Felice returned soon after. We could never rely on the prison board. Personally I didn’t trust Felice’s board.
“Division 6 is a typical case. It’s not fit for humans, it fails when compared to European standards, and Mario Felice never made any visible pressure to get this division closed. There is a lack of ventilation, very low lighting, a lack of facilities that other prisoners have… for example you can’t have personal belongings with you. It’s intended as a punishment, so it is automatically the worst wing in prison. As long as one is kept for a pre-determined time it’s not a problem, but most of the time they are kept for long stretches of time.
“What struck me about Felice’s interview is that his description of Division 6 is not compatible with the description he had given under oath in court. I find that strange. When he was board chairman, he never put forward any serious complaints about Division 6, despite all the wrong things it had, as reported by others, including the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture.
“On the other hand, Gatt introduced accountability among his staff, although he found a small circle of officers who refused to cooperate. But under Gatt, these people were either given less powers or removed altogether. Government should have shown more trust in Gatt and kept him there at least until the investigations are concluded. Cassar’s resignation wasn’t accepted and yet he had so many escapes and a disastrous track record. I think public opinion and the media have derailed the issue at stake here, which is the beating of Perry (Toornstra). The question of the prisoners’ representative as covered by The Times has derailed the whole issue.”
About the “small clique” of prison warders whom Calleja blames for undermining Corradino’s supposed rehabilitation programme, he says they were not more than seven, and three of them are no longer working there.
“They see prison as their private territory where they can give life to their sadistic fantasies. They put spokes in the wheel for prisoners, even when it is about their fundamental rights. I have seen certain prisoners who may be weak, being abused psychologically to the point that they attempt suicide or harming themselves, because of the psychological torture they are made to endure. They are only four officers, but highly sadistic. They would undermine the director’s decisions, or invent things to suspend prisoners’ rights and privileges. They are also highly racist, discriminating against foreigners, particularly Arabs and Muslims.”
Asked how prison affected him personally, Calleja says it opened his eyes to the plight of the class of people that were totally cut off and alienated from their rights.
“The years I spent in prison surely enlightened me about the problems of the underprivileged people who can’t articulate their needs, who have no access to the resources they need and who can’t get their human rights enforced. This is a huge problem in Malta.
“When I was in prison, I resisted resorting to tranquillisers, sleeping pills and the like. I used time constructively, I wrote two books, I started university… Of course I regret having lost all that time with my family.
“But if you’re asking me about remorse, then that’s something else. You rationalise remorse according to your true experience, not on what is expected by the people out there. You can only rehabilitate yourself if you are offered the tools necessary to that end. These include education and the transformation of your perspective.
“At the Corradino facility we had the Edward de Bono Foundation helping towards that end, and even Sandro Gatt worked in that sense, but when you see that kind of progress being stopped all of a sudden, it undermines any rehabilitation that is going on.
“Prisoners make the most unfortunate strata, enjoying no access to resources. Every person detained within the institution has no facility to put forward his complaint, to take collective action in the prisoners’ interest, because of course prison is intended to break up any sense of union and solidarity among people. Prison makes you conscious of all this. It is a great shame that the minister accepted the resignation and appointed Cassar.”
The situation is equally bleak for prisoners once they are released.
“It’s extremely difficult because there is no structure to help you reintegrate in society. I found no help with housing, for example, the same with social services. Finding a job is next to impossible, especially a person like myself whose case was given so much publicity in the media, attracting notoriety.”