Once more on prison reform
It is common knowledge
today that most high profile criminal activities are
masterminded behind prison walls. Certain hardcore prisoners are
in regular contact with their colleagues outside the confines of
the prison and issue the necessary orders. One often hears how
cell phones are detected in the possession of prisoners and of
special treatment accorded to selected inmates. The long arm of
the convict to reach outside his prison confines it appears has
been stronger than the long arm of the law.
Today prisons have become a home away from home for most
inmates. In fact, some relish their confinement which offer them
a perfect cover to continue their criminal activities by remote
control. There is a dark sleazy subterranean life operating in
the underbelly of prisons with all its networks and connections.
Needless to say, poorly paid prison officials are part and
parcel of this network. So much so, there was once even a story
how a notorious drug baron had left the prison confines to visit
his family late at night. There is therefore today a hierarchy
among even prison inmates who are treated in the order of merit.
The prisons no longer evoke awe and dread of the past with
inmates calling the shots and prison officials acting as
couriers of their charges.
One also frequently hears of how rival gang leaders of those
in prison getting bumped off outside and of how these killings
have been masterminded behind prison walls. If this is the state
of affairs of our prisons very soon they will become redundant
as institutions that symbolizes justice and punishment to
criminals and anti-social elements.
Thus, the edict issued by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to
prison authorities to evolve a mechanism to stop criminals
directing crime operations from the confines of the prisons is
sure to be welcomed by all.
The only way to achieve this is a complete overhaul of the
Prison system that includes the weeding out of rampant
corruption inherent in the system. Hopefully there will be
immediate moves to rid the prisons of its rotten core and
dismantle the prisoners' network that extend outside its walls.
The changes should be part of the proposed prison reforms
which has once again come to the fore as a leading topic with
suggestions in favour of making our prisons more congenial
places that house those who had strayed from the path of the
law. This should include the swift disposal of cases and a more
lenient attitude towards remand prisoners.
President Rajapaksa too has taken up cudgels on behalf of
certain type of prison inmates. He has instructed Prison Reforms
Minister D E W Gunasekera to make recommendations on those
prisoners who are old, feeble and ailing in order to secure
their release. During the Prisoners' Welfare Day event at Temple
Trees the President made special mention of what is already
common knowledge viz. minor offenders who are unable to pay
fines are promptly sent to remand prison.
He said these prisoners are being punished while being held
in remand prison before they are convicted by Court. The
President has also called for an overhaul of Penal Code and the
Administration of Justice in the lower Courts in order to reduce
prison congestion and facilitate prisoner rehabilitation.
Today our prisons are bursting at the seams and there are
moves to relocate certain prisons to more spacious quarters to
mitigate the problem. However relocation of prisons or building
new prisons are not the solution. Prisons will continue to
overflow unless certain basic changes are made in the legal
structure as well as ensuring a more equitable society. The age
old concept of prisons should also undergo a change. A
transformation is also needed in the socio-economic conditions
that has been a contributor to crime in our society. There is
also the social tensions in modern society that have also driven
people into crime. Most crimes today are not crimes of passion
as in the past but a result of the peculiar social environment,
undercurrents and pent up feelings leading to tensions that
invariably seek an outlet in violent forms.
Also the public perception of a prison should be
de-constructed in a way that would remove the stigma attached to
prisoners. Today a man walking out of prison has to contend with
the blemish as long as he lives. The stigma is also passed on to
his progeny leaving them ostracised from society. Prisons should
be converted into a kind of reformist centre shorn of its
traditional image of an institution that houses the condemned
and the damned.
Many developed countries have succeeded in changing the image
of their prisons. Some of them are being run as community
centres where inmates are allowed family unions making them a
sort of home away from home. Prisoners are provided with all
basic facilities including vocational training and recreation to
make their lives as congenial as possible under the
Prison reforms should not be carried out piece meal but
factor in all issues particularly modern day shifts and changes
in concepts and attitudes. As mentioned, new laws should be
brought in to reflect the changes. While prisons are needed as a
deterrent to crime and protect society as a whole from
anti-social elements they should not necessarily function as
instruments of punishment and a means of condemning a man. The
proposed reforms hopefully would include features that
encapsulate this notion.