Malta’s prison has long been seen as a derelict and hopeless hellhole – an institution where people are thrown away and forgotten about without a chance to reform.
Former prisoners, some who spent nearly a decade locked up in Corradino Correctional Facility in Paola, have laid what life is like inside: endless white walls and boredom, nothing to do but make Playmobil dolls for a meagre wage and trying to avoid the drugs, synthetic or otherwise, scattered throughout the divisions – not easy when up to 70% of the prison population are inside for drug-related charges.
Then Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Dalli took over as prison director in 2018 – and he and the Home Affairs Ministry have granted Lovin Malta an exclusive video interview from his office, under a number of strict conditions.
A former Search and Rescue pilot who spent 25 years in the Armed Forces of Malta, Dalli’s reputation precedes him.
A lot of colourful descriptions have been said about the man: he runs the prison with an iron fist, he’s a “sadistic” disciplinarian, he single-handedly eradicated drugs in Malta’s drug-infested prison, he sometimes wears 19th-century Maltese military garb and carries a sword just to hype up his correctional officers’ team… the list goes on and on.
However, sitting in his office, Dalli’s work over the last two years is evident, not least by the giant wall of homemade weapons on his wall.
Under a literal wall of shanks, as they are known colloquially, Dalli explained to Lovin Malta that he and his team had started confiscating them as soon as he took over as prison director in 2018… and the innovation within the pieces is quite impressive.
They are hung according to size, with the smallest – sharp little chicken bones – on the left leading to the largest, including broomsticks honed to a piercing tip. There are weapons of all types – bone, ceramic, wooden, plastic, electric razors turned into drills… and there are even some actual knives.
They stand as a very graphic reminder if you happen to forget where you are.
Across from the shanks is a display full of Dalli’s medals from his army years, both locally and abroad – he’s even got one from America’s ICE. It’s clear from the moment you meet Dalli that he is an army man through and through – he even gives out medals with his own Dalli family emblem on the back to correctional officers who excel at their job.
For Dalli, it’s all about the carrot and the stick. Indeed, he runs the place using a clear system of attainable privileges for good behaviour. For example, you can get an extra 30 minutes on your shower slot, or maybe have more flexibility when it comes to what time you get to make your phone calls, as long as you don’t do drugs and avoid fighting people.
For the best-behaved prisoners, board games like Cluedo, a bit more privacy and even access to a personal radio may be on the cards.
Walking around the facilities, the first thing you notice is the cleanliness. Previous prisoners had spoken about the smell of synthetic drugs in the air from early in the morning and the general dilapidated environs of Malta’s prison, with over 700 men all cramped up together there.
There’s not much that can be done about the prison itself – Dalli himself is the first to admit that he was given an old prison to work with, and if you ask him what he would do with an unlimited budget, his answer is clear – “build a new prison”.
Right outside his office is a long list of photos of previous prison directors – except they abruptly end at 1978… and then restart in 2018, with Dalli being the next in line. When asked about these missing directors, a correctional officer who had been working at Kordin for over a quarter of a century said the previous directors just didn’t care enough to put their own photos up.
Dalli’s focus on modernising the services is clear – he’s massively expanded prisoners’ mental health support by employing a range of experts, increased the set of jobs available inside and practically removed all fights and violence from prison.
And his obsession with keeping the current facilities as clean as possible had clearly been communicated to the prisoners. There are hand sanitizers everywhere, and from the food storage and kitchen to the hallways, from the K9 Unit to the rubbish area, the place was spic and span.
It’s no wonder Malta has yet to have a single positive case of COVID-19 among the prisoner population.
At some point, we came across some leftover hair from a barber who had just finished cutting some prisoners’ hair. Orders were immediately given for this vagrant hair to be seen to and removed as soon as possible, please.
But beyond the cleanliness, what was truly striking was the way prisoners acted when Dalli appeared.
Walking through the yard (where, incredibly, every prisoner was wearing a face mask, something you don’t see in public), inmates smiled and nodded at the prison director, not least of all because he directly spoke to many of them by name.
Some prisoners simply refer to him as “daddy”.
A couple of prisoners took the opportunity to approach Dalli with their personal problems as soon as they saw him. One emotional man said his car had been stolen on the outside the night before and didn’t know what to do; Dalli calmed the man down. He doesn’t refrain from getting up close with prisoners – he himself will admit he enjoys hugging inmates if needs be.
Within the kitchen, inmates and correctional officers worked side by side. A leading local catering company had rolled out a scheme where prisoners who excel within the kitchen can be given a job with the catering company when they are set free, something that inmates with a passion for food could work towards.
But it’s not just food – prisoners can now work in masonry or paintwork.
A couple of beefed-up inmates with teardrop tattoos on their face were in the yard. They were in a really good mood as they had just finished a challenging mason work project; they can make anything from pet kennels to large rooms.
And it’s not just the prisoners who seem as satisfied as you can be when you have your freedom taken from you and are locked up – a correctional officer who was escorting us told us that he was about to retire, but decided to stay on past 2018 once he found out Dalli was joining.
It all seemed as calm as could be, especially for a prison with over 700 inmates, some on life sentences, many foreign, all locked in together. However, it’s not all milk and honey in prison.
There are still regular and unexplained deaths in the middle of the night. Some prisoner rights, like conjugal visits, have been removed, and other prisoners have baulked at the strict disciplinary methods of the colonel.
Just recently, one of the prison’s most famous inmates, murder suspect Yorgen Fenech, initiated a hunger strike at what he called overcrowding and deteriorating conditions.
However, in a strange way, it seemed a calmer and more orderly inside prison than the streets of Paola outside – but what price was paid for that discipline?
We sat down with Col. Dalli for an open interview that will be released exclusively on Lovin Malta soon – watch this space.