At the age of 19, Lawrence* was tried for trafficking cannabis and sentenced to nine months in prison, fined €500 and given three years probation that include monthly urine tests. He served 6 months from that sentence before being released last month. Under probation and struggling to get to grips with what happened to him, Lawrence and his family must now contend with a different future than the one they had planned.
“It happened in the parking lot near Subway in Paceville,” said Lawrence of the fateful Saturday night he was arrested. “I was with two friends who had asked me to get them eight joints. We were in the back corner, near the gate, when five policeman approached us and asked us what we were doing.”
Suspicious, the police searched them and found eight joints on the two friends, and 1.5g of cannabis on Lawrence.
The police asked them where they got the joints from, and his two friends pointed at him.
From that moment on, everything went downhill for him.
Looking back at the whole ordeal, Lawrence probably took his friends’ betrayal the hardest. Having his friends give him up immediately when faced with pressure from the police hurt.
“I didn’t expect to end up like this. I did them a favour and they did this to me. I don’t want to see my friends now. I wish they didn’t point at me,” he says.
He was arrested that Saturday night, and spent one and half days in lock-up. The police searched his home, and found no other drugs.
He was sentenced on Monday morning as an “urgent” case and was rushed through the justice system.
“I was arrested Saturday evening and by 5pm Monday I was at Corradino Correctional Facility,” he says wryly.
“I was caught for personal use and was tried for trafficking”
Lawrence, aged 19
Lawrence’s mother took the arrest hard. She was disappointed that her son was involved in these kinds of things – but she was much more disappointed in the authorities’ reaction.
“Eight joints just isn’t trafficking,” his mother says clearly. “I’m glad he was caught and that he was punished – but the punishment didn’t fit the crime, it was excessive. The police didn’t even find any other drugs at home. They could have given him community service, but no, they imprisoned him, and what did he learn? Some swear words and how to make bad friends.”
“He lost a good job that he was very happy in, and his conduct is not clean now and I know that it will be hard for him to find a job,” she says.
In her eyes, he was punished for a crime he didn’t commit, the punishment benefitted nobody, least of all society, and he was bored out of his mind the entire time after being placed directly among criminals.
“He gained nothing from being in prison with hardened criminals,” she says.
While he spent the majority of his imprisonment at the Young Persons Offenders Unit (YOURS) in Mtaħleb, he did spend a week in the infamous Division 7 at Corradino Correctional Facility.
His mother says she had “to move mountains” to get him out of Division 7, and she had reached out to anyone that she could to try and alleviate the suffering her son was going through.
“I tried to speak to Education Minister Evarist Bartolo, and the President, who did actually call me two or three times, which I greatly appreciate. I sent an email to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on a particular issue and by the evening, the issue I was complaining about was fixed,” she says.
However, not everyone was responsive to her calls.
“I wish we had gotten at least an acknowledgment from Justice Minister Owen Bonnici,” she says in a disappointed tone. “But I did whatever I could. I want this to work for the families that come next, I don’t want anyone to have to go through this kind of worrying again,” she says.
While imprisoned, Lawrence continued to study. He was allowed to go to MCAST for lessons, but was not allowed his own laptop, and largely had no internet access for six months, even though prisoners who study are usually allowed laptops.
But for Lawrence himself, a young adult with a passion for sports who was studying to enter the fitness industry, the boredom was overwhelming.
“I didn’t want to stay there,” he says with a sigh. “It was so boring. We woke up at 7:45, had roll call, cleaned our cell, have our room checked, breakfast which is toast and milk, then we do our duties, and spent the rest of the day in either the games room, gym, or watching TV or playing Xbox.”
With 16 young adults to a dorm, there wasn’t much privacy. Worse than that, he was out of his league again.
“The others were in for things like theft, cocaine, and pills,” he says.
And when someone’s urine test came back positive for synthetic cannabis inside, all eyes turned to him. After that incident, they cut down on the things that were allowed to be given to him, like cakes.
Other things began to take their toll.
Since he stopped smoking cannabis, he found it harder to sleep and started taking medicine prescribed by the prison psychiatrist to help him sleep instead. And when his grandfather was taken to hospital suddenly to undergo four heart operations, he wasn’t allowed out to see him.
His experience with the prison psychologist didn’t go any better. She advised that he continue to see a psychologist after he leaves prison. He was given no aftercare plan, and was told “if you had money for drugs you will have money to pay for the psychologist.”
She also advised the family undergo therapy.
“This is something that’s affected our whole family,” says his mother. “When we went to visit him, the prison guards would search all of us. They’d even search his little 8-year-old brothers.”
The indignity of the situation wasn’t lost on her, and the treatment her family received at the hands of the Maltese juvenile justice system stung her.
“No-one believed that he could be tried as a trafficker for just eight joints. When the judge had sentenced him, he had said ‘you are on the doorstep of trafficking’… for eight joints!” she says wearily.
While she wants to thank some people, like Mr Gordon Formosa, the director at the Mtaħleb facility, as well Mr John Bartolo from MCAST, she just can’t understand how the authorities saw fit to punish her son so harshly.
“He was in court the same day those men who had held that woman down to force her to have an abortion were tried… the same day those bouncers from Paceville who had beaten up someone were tried…” she trails off.
Lawrence is out now, and he is looking forward to graduating and his very first work placement at a gym. But his family knows the battle is not over until his probation period is over.
“The probation is a big burden to our family,” she ends. “For two and a half years I’m going to be worried every day that he might get into trouble with the law, and get thrown right back into jail.”
*Names have been changed