Over a decade ago, British father Daniel Holmes was sentenced to 10 years and 6 months in Corradino Correctional Facility for growing five cannabis plants in his flat in Gozo. His flatmate, Barry Lee, who was arrested alongside him, committed suicide while under arrest and awaiting sentencing. Daniel’s parents and his wife have spent the last decade trying to appeal his sentence, to no avail.
Lovin Malta spoke to him in prison as he approaches the end of his sentence and prepares to restart his life.
Seeing Daniel Holmes walk into Corradino Correctional Facility’s Visiting Room is a bit surreal: this is the man who became the star scapegoat in the Maltese government’s fight against drugs, the man who was the impetus for Malta’s largest pro-cannabis protests, and the man who was sentenced to rot in jail for over a decade for something that could be legal in Malta within the next few years.
But he doesn’t seem to be thinking about that, what with the smile on his face as he approaches our table. He is just happy to have visitors, even if they are strangers: as he himself says, the biggest battle in prison is staving off the boredom.
He didn’t expect to be in prison at this point in his life. Daniel Holmes was arrested in 2006 while living in a €300-a-month flat in Gozo. He was 28 years old at the time, and he was painted as a big time drug trafficker: a drug kingpin who was growing massive amounts of the cannabis plant, packaging it, and distributing it on the streets of Malta.
When this journalist spoke to Minister for Justice Owen Bonnici back in 2013 about the case, the Minister continued to say that Holmes had “a roof full of plants,” and made it clear he believed throwing Holmes in prison for a decade would be making Maltese society safer.
However, the truth is far less impressive. He was caught with just 5 mature cannabis plants, and 25 seedlings.
Considering that cannabis lobby group ReLeaf are asking for the personal growing of six cannabis plants to be allowed in Malta, in line with places like Colorado and Uruguay, Daniel’s crime starts to look a little bit different today than it did in 2006.
And considering what he says about his life in prison, one begins to wonder what the real crime here was.
“Everyone in here is on synthetic,” Daniel told Lovin Malta, in reference to the legal artificial cannabis substitute that has flooded the black market in place of real, natural cannabis.
“They’ve just had an overdose today* in fact, about an hour ago…many prisoners just sit in their rooms smoking synthetic all day and playing their video games,” he says.
It’s no secret that prison in Malta is flooded with drugs, with prisoners oftentimes entering prison for petty crimes and leaving the place addicted to something like heroin or synthetic.
But the irony of Daniel Holmes being painted as a drug kingpin for growing five cannabis plants while the prison he was sent to seems to be a cesspool of hard drugs is not lost on the man.
He spends a lot of his time reading. He relies on books donated to him by the public, which his father then gives to the prison. He’s had about 80 books donated to him.
Unfortunately, for reasons unbeknownst to him, most of the books are still in lock-up, to be released when the correctional officers are through with them.
Until then, he will be working on his first ever book. Daniel wants to let everyone know exactly what life in Malta’s prison is really like.
He explains the hierarchy of the Maltese prison, the cost of longterm living inside, and describes the other prisoners, 80% of which Daniel believes are in prison for drug related charges.
He also speaks at length about the jobs that prisoners are given to make a tiny amount of money and to pass the time. He raises his hands, which are marked with callouses, especially on the thumb and palm of the hands, which he said he developed from popping so many Playmobil doll heads into place over seven years.
The food situation is not terrible, but just adds to the daily boredom: “we get burger and chips, or hot dogs and chips. When it’s a festa – like the 15th August – we get spaghetti, and then cube roll for dinner.”
Compared to the horror stories you hear from prisons abroad, Malta’s prison food might fare well, though Daniel says he has worked in the kitchen, and it is “far from clean.”
A lot of the men in prison count down the days till the next visit from a loved one. Daniel speaks of young men who work for cheap – either by making Playmobil dolls or some mother menial job – for days, just to afford a large bottle of coca-cola for when their wives and young children come to visit them…if they come.
A large bottle of coke is €1.47 from the prison canteen, and is not an easy purchase to make. But a lot of men feel the need to still supply for their families – even when they are the ones who are locked up.
In fact, one such family sits on the table beside us. Seeing a young father reunite with his wife and little boy and girl while locked up is not an easy thing.
The father pulls out four small white plastic cups gingerly – it cost him a lot to get those cups, but for his kids, they are nothing. He pours the coca-cola while their mom tells them to drink up.
The father smiles proudly.
Watching the nearby family reunite reminds Daniel of his own family. He married his then-girlfriend Marzena three years into his prison sentence, in a ceremony in the prison itself. They then conceived their second daughter Blossom while in prison.
However, he has had little input into his young family’s life, with his youngest daughter not even really understanding that her father is in prison. He still thinks about them every day.
Regardless of these hardships, the only way to describe Daniel Holmes’ demeanour after eight years in prison is cheerful. He looks healthy, and looks focused – and he has less than a year left on his sentence due to his good behaviour, and has a lot of plans for when he gets out.
He has not been involved with any of the drugs that most of the other prisoners got involved with, and has already made his first moves towards securing a book deal. Far from the drug-addicted kingpin that he was portrayed us by the courts, he is a man who has been wrung through the Maltese justice system for a non-violent crime – and he knows it.
Luckily, his sense of humour is as strong as it was before he was imprisoned.
“My mates said they’ll be waiting for me with a joint right outside the prison on my release day, but I won’t be smoking cannabis in Malta anymore!” he laughs. He follows that by imploring people in Malta should not commit crimes, saying it isn’t worth it.
With just months left on his sentence, Daniel is focused on being reunited with his family: his parents, who haven’t left his side since he got arrested, and his wife and two young daughters.
But the world will be watching his release. With everything from documentaries to international coverage of his case since his arrest – and his soon-to-be-released autobiographical account of his time inside to be immortalised in his debut novel – it doesn’t seem like Daniel will be disappearing from the spotlight right upon release.
His freedom will come amid a national push towards cannabis legalisation in Malta. The nation that condemned him to a decade in prison is not the nation he will find upon his release.
As Malta modernises its approach towards cannabis, we might look back on Daniel Holmes’ imprisonment as a dark stain in Malta’s history, as a case of how bad and unjust laws can have long term, real world consequences on the people who fall under their gavel.
You can read the poetry of Daniel Holmes by visiting his website.
*The interview was held in Corradino Correctional Facility on the August 15th, 2017