Malta’s prison is under the spotlight like never before and it’s all thanks to a retired lieutenant colonel who has shaken things up at Kordin.
Alex Dalli clearly seems like a proud soldier, a disciplinarian who is admired by those who work for him and feared by those who cross his path.
But who is Dalli and what do we know about how he runs one of the country’s most secretive institutions? Is he the right man for one of the toughest jobs in the country or has he gone a few steps too far?
Dalli has spent most of his adult life in the military, enlisting as a cadet in the Armed Forces of Malta in 1987, when he was 21 years old. He studied at a number of top military schools overseas, including the Military School of Physical Education in Orvieto, Italy and the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, UK.
Upon his return to Malta, Dalli joined the Air Squadron as a pilot and was eventually placed in command of this unit.
Most of his military career was dedicated to coordinating search and rescue operations, particularly of migrants, in Malta’s SAR zone, even becoming the director of the SAR Training Centre in 2005.
In an interview with Lovin Malta, he recounted how he spent endless hours gazing at the deep sea looking for signs of a bobbing head to hopefully rescue even one more life.
In 2009, he took up a job at the EU’s border control agency Frontex, notably serving as project manager for a pilot programme to clamping down on human smugglers to Greece by utilising linguists.
An Al Jazeera article from 2016, during the European migrant crisis, cited an unnamed Greek official as describing this project as “extremely effective” in reducing migration to the Greek islands.
After retiring from the army in 2008, Dalli worked for Transport Malta’s sea vessel tracking operation and eventually won a backtracked promotion to Lieutenant Colonel by recommendation of the AFM Injustices Board.
So when Dalli walked into the gates of Kordin in 2018, he did so as a man who had already climbed through the ranks of the Maltese military, saved several lives at sea, and suffered personal injustices himself.
He wasted no time stamping his mark on the prison, becoming the first prison director since 1976 to add his name to a plaque of directors, a clear sign of his intention to leave some kind of legacy behind him.
More controversially, he installed a notice at the prison stating that prisoners aren’t afraid of the police or the courts and that it is therefore the prison’s job to “teach fear” to them.
The sign, which was revealed by journalist Peppi Azzopardi, was a red flag on Dalli’s leadership style and has since been removed.
“Fear is a good thing. It makes you do good, like the fear of God,” he told Manuel Delia in an interview.
However, Dalli’s authoritarian style of management wasn’t limited to symbolic gestures.
Shortly after his appointment as director, he took the drastic decision of banning all conjugal visits for over a year pending the introduction of new security measures out of concern that some prisoners were using them as an avenue to smuggle drugs into Kordin.
There’s no doubt it must have been painful for the prisoners, particularly those who were merely craving some intimate time with their loved ones and a reminder of life outside those four walls.
However, Dalli was a man on a mission to eliminate every single last drug from the prison and had no problem being ruthless to achieve these aims.
“Drugs are the root of all evil,” the director insisted with Manuel Delia in an interview later.
In February 2019, Dalli was so confident about the way things were going that he agreed to be grilled on Xarabank by not only Peppi Azzopardi, who would go on to become his biggest critic but by some prisoners themselves.
Prisoners publicly praised his tough stance on tackling drug abuse, with one stating that drugs inside prison must have been reduced by a whopping 95% under his watch.
“Drugs will kill you but without them you get to live some more,” Dalli explained. “I am doing what I’m doing with discipline but with love.”
In an interview with Lovin Malta, he claimed that the elimination of drugs has even led to a downturn in violence, and that even verbal violence is now non-existent.
Dalli has made it a point to get to know prisoners on a personal basis, stating in different interviews that he knows all their personal problems, that he often walks around the prison in a T-shirt and shorts, and that he even hugs some prisoners as a sign of affection.
And when it comes to his staff, he has tried to install a sense of pride (or esprit de corps) in them, including by handing out medals with his family crest.
“For the past 40 years, the prison was run by bullies,” Dalli told Mark Laurence Zammit last year. “If our staff would tell a prisoner something they wouldn’t like, they would find their front door or car burned down. This was a daily occurrence when I started my job, but I told the workers that we will work together to put an end to the days of barons and bullies.”
While Dalli’s hardline attitude towards drugs, including by installing body scanners at every entrance to the prison, has been widely praised, his style of maintaining order has raised eyebrows.
The director has placed a lot of emphasis on a “privilege” system, whereby prisoners who behave well get rewarded with things like games, better cells, phoning their loved ones at more convenient hours, and even going for a swim outside Kordin.
On the other hand, bad behaviour, including drug use and violence, will lead to those same privileges getting snatched away from them.
“That’s how to run a prison well,” he told Lovin Malta. “Prisoners know that they will lose your privileges if they do wrong.”
However, Dalli hasn’t clarified straight out what aspects of prison life he considers to be a basic right and what aspects he considers to be a privilege.
He has confirmed though that all prisoners start off isolated at Division 6, a maximum-security area of Kordin, in case they’re infected with COVID-19.
“Thank God for Division 6 because it allowed us to contain new prisoners and it takes all new inmates so we could contain them for COVID-19 reasons,” he said, hailing Kordin as one of the only prisons in the world where the virus didn’t spread.
Former prisoner Anthony Borg told Times of Malta recently that he was sent to Division 6 for an entire summer after he got into an argument with Dalli and told the prison director to fuck off.
He warned the division is extremely hot, with the only window full of metal gratings, and said he ended up threatening guards to kill himself unless he was transferred.
Since Dalli has insisted that prisoners don’t get punished but rather get privileges taken away from them for bad behaviour, it indicates that he considers Division 6 to be a sort of ground zero for prison life and everything better than that to be a privilege.
Rumours from within Kordin have also regularly leaked to the press, including that Dalli walks around the premises armed with a gun and dogs and bodyguards by his side, instilling a sense of fear in the inmates as his original notice pledged he would.
More worryingly, he has also been accused of habits dangerously approaching psychological torture, with university dean Andrew Azzopardi recently claiming Dalli had made a group of academics listen to a prisoner sobbing and crying for his mother while in solitary confinement.
For their part, their prison authorities have repeatedly denied that prisoners are ever sent to solitary confinement except for the rare instances when the courts order the punishment as part of their sentence.
And the allegations of cruel and unusual punishment don’t stop there.
Dalli has been accused of tying prisoners naked to a chair as a punishment, with PN MP Beppe Fenech Adami even raising the allegation in Parliament.
In an interview on L-Erbgħa Fost il-Ġimgħa in December 2020, he insisted that it wasn’t used to punish prisoners but to restrain them when they get violent.
“Have you ever experienced a man three times your size and in a state of delirium rushing at you with a bloody knife?” he asked presenter Mark Laurence Zammit before passing a sneering comment.
“Your greatest danger as a journalist is tripping over a stair and hurting your foot or getting an electric shock when plugging in a computer.”
Dalli faced serious criticism for his lack of sensitivity to the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia afterwards, and he hasn’t appeared in a single interview since then.
However, the prison itself remains under the spotlight, particularly after two young prisoners with drug addiction problems committed suicide in prison.
In his Times of Malta interview, Anthony Borg accused Dalli of running a “vindictive” facility and making prisoners feel like schoolchildren.
Another prisoner, who spoke to NET anonymously, claimed the prison is trying to install a culture of fear and terror and that if you get into trouble with Dalli “you’re done”.
ONE TV responded by alleging that the prisoner was suspected drug trafficker Jordan Azzopardi, a story that turned out to be false but which has yet to be retracted.
While the Opposition has called for Dalli to be sacked for instilling a culture of fear, the government has stood by the former military man, with Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri claiming a lot of criticism of the director is based on “sensationalism”.
Dalli’s job appears to be safe for now, but with more prisoners feeling empowered to speak out about the conditions on Kordin and an inquiry launched into prison conditions and procedures, it is clear that the heat on him isn’t going away anytime soon.
What do you make of Alex Dalli’s tenure as prison chief?