It is easy for us, from the comfort of our middle-class homes, to snigger, gasp and gossip about someone like Josette Bickle, a now notorious woman who seemed to rule prison in a way which sounds like something straight out of a movie. We heard of other prisoners being treated like her slaves and of warders who were basically afraid of her, while she carried on a drug trafficking operation with what seemed like impunity.
But reading about her background and what led her to become a hardened criminal, I just felt an overwhelming wave of sadness that she was born into such dire circumstances. Which one of us, after all, could have escaped what seemed like her inevitable destiny? Imagine being born into a family where the mother is already a prostitute and a drug addict, and there are five other siblings to look after – what hope is there unless by some miracle you break the cycle and remove yourself from that kind of life? There was no chance of that because by the age of 13, Josette was already a prostitute herself, and the next step was drugs to which she was introduced by her boyfriend. It’s like a textbook case of a teenager gone wrong, but in this case, it is clear that for Josette there seemed to be no other kind of life for her – that is what she had seen growing up; that is what she knew.
It is often difficult to digest that in Malta, which seems so safe and family-oriented, there is this underbelly of crime, drug trafficking and child prostitution right under our nose. As I look at the happy, well-cared for children around me, I wonder how many other young ‘Josette Bickles’ there are at this very moment who have already seen too much for their tender years, and who have been corrupted forever. It is only those who work within the sphere of NGOs, social work and probation who are really in touch with this dark side of Malta – they will tell you with weariness just how many cases like Josette’s they come across, and how prevalent the problem really is.
Organisations such as the YMCA, which takes the homeless and the forgotten under its wing, regularly bring the plight of such delinquent teenagers to media attention, pointing out that prison is not the answer, and yet the pleas often fall on deaf ears. Jean Paul Mifsud expressed this succinctly in a recent FB status,
“When Ms Bickle was 13, it was around 1981. The sad reality is that in so many years nothing much has changed on this front as kids with challenging behaviour in the last years have been served the same treatment, if not worse in two particular cases, and left to their whims. As I write I am thinking of the three particular kids whom our institutions and society at large have failed miserably.”
His words impressed me because he is so completely spot on. No one stepped in when Josette first got into trouble with the law to help save her from spiralling even further into a life of crime and decadence. And years later, no one is stepping in now to save today’s lost kids who, through bad choices and unfortunate circumstances, have landed themselves on the wrong path. Jean Paul is right – we as a society are failing them because there do not seem to be any formal structures, other than prison, where young offenders can be sent. From what we have learned of the easy access to drugs in prison, even adults are faring badly in that place, let alone a teenager.
If Josette Bickle’s story is going to serve for something other than idle gossip and the shock horror reaction of those who read the sordid details, then steps need to be taken to create a system which offers an alternative to prison. Other countries use such programs as boot camps to try and set juvenile delinquents on the right path – whatever method is used, however, it is always tailored specifically for this age group. Troubled and emotionally battered teenagers need infinite care and attention if they are to be nurtured back into mainstream society – it is an extremely difficult job, but if we turn our backs on them and wash our hands of them as a lost cause, we will simply be reinforcing their belief that they are worthless and that no one cares.
As I studied Josette Bickle’s hard, lined face, which looks so much older than her 43 years, I wondered whether she ever really knew what childhood innocence was like. I am not excusing her for the way she eventually treated others, but usually when people end up being so cruel and heartless it is because they have been been through terrible events themselves. They lose all sense of empathy, they simply stop caring and are devoid of compassion.
None of us are in control of the hand of cards which are dealt to us – and more and more, I find that some people seem to have more bad things happen to them than others. That’s why, despite the fact that she comes across as such a despicable person, on reading Josette’s life story, I felt that further condemnation seems harsh and unnecessary. We should all count ourselves lucky that we were not raised in a decrepit building in a slum area with no glimmer of hope that we could ever wrench ourselves away from that life.
We should count ourselves lucky than our biggest problem this Christmas is deciding what we should buy for our loved ones because they seem to have everything.