Sri Lanka takes lead in prison reform in Asia | Daily News

Sri Lanka takes lead in prison reform in Asia

Hosts Asian Conference of Correctional Facilities, Architects and Planners
Prisons  Commissioner and Prison media  spokesperson Thushara Upuldeniya
Prisons Commissioner and Prison media spokesperson Thushara Upuldeniya

Sri Lanka this year will host the Asian Conference of Correctional Facilities, Architects and Planners (ACCFA) at which officials and planners of correctional facilities in 16 countries will come together to discuss how best to design a prison. Prisons Commissioner and Prison media spokesperson Thushara Upuldeniya spoke to the Daily News of the plans for restructuring Sri Lanka’s prisons and of our journey towards reform, which has made us a shining example in Asian correctional facilities.

Excerpts follow:

Q: What is this conference about?

A. The Asian Conference of Correctional Facilities, Architects and Planners is hosted each year by one of the countries in the region. This is the seventh conference. Last year it was held in Indonesia. We are hosting it this year. Here we will discuss how best prisons can be designed and planned to offer a suitable and conducive environment for prisoners. We will exchange ideas and knowledge on this subject with other countries.

When constructing a prison, you have to bear in mind that this is not just a building. This is where prisoners are rehabilitated and released into society. For this we need to have a conducive environment for such activities. At the moment, the services and facilities available in Sri Lankan prisons are not sufficient to carry out a complete rehabilitation programme for prisoners.

Like us, most Asian countries have problems with their prisons, especially when prison populations keep steadily increasing. This means there are fewer resources and officers to go around. We will discuss how we can overcome the issues faced within prisons.

Further, we will look into ways in which a prison can be designed according to international standards. In this venture, it is important to take into account security and how we carry out a successful rehabilitation programme and provide quality of life for prisoners (eg: accommodation, sanitation, etc). There are international standards prescribed for this called the Mandela rules which set down the minimum guidelines for prison construction. In addition, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has set guidelines for designing prisons.

Sixteen countries will take part in this conference; four international organizations and government agencies such as the State Engineering Corporation (SEC), Urban Development Authority (UDA) and the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) will join us.

We also have 85 international dignitaries attending the conference, along with prison commissioners and ICRC representatives.

Q: Why is this conference important for us?

A. Since 2009, the government has taken special interest in restructuring and reforming the prisons. A separate ministry was created because the government gave importance to prison reforms.

There are several areas identified in the reform process. First, to improve prison infrastructure and move out of the old prisons. At present, all our old prisons are located in very economically lucrative plots of land within the city. So in keeping with the government’s economic plan, we discussed with the government the handing over of these lands to the government and designing of new prisons under international guidelines. We planned eight such prisons, of which three are complete. They are Bogambara, Angunakolapelessa and Jaffna. Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Welikada have also been planned.

Similarly, in the recent past, we have looked into alternatives to imprisonment.

Any country which wishes to improve the criminal justice system looks into this. Not everyone who commits a crime needs imprisonment. Crimes have degrees of severity. We heard of a child who was sent to prison because she stole some coconuts; that should not be the case. We need to look at how serious the crime is and then implement the law. So we took the positive step to establish community-based rehabilitation programmes and we managed to reduce the prison population by 9,000. Here criminals with minor offences are kept within the community and rehabilitated.

At the same time, for drug addicts, we established a Drug Rehabilitation Centre in 2014 at Kandakadu. Now the courts direct these addicts to the centre without sending them to prison. This is under the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation. The concept here was to not treat them as criminals, but as addicts. And that they need treatment, not imprisonment.

Also, we have open prisons for short-term prisoners and have programmes in which the government gets revenue through them. This open prison concept was something that won us praise the world over. In addition, the Ministry intervened and appointed a committee to look into relief measures that can be provided to long-term prisoners. The Committee sends recommendations to the President, and prisoners on life sentence or death sentence have got some relief through that.

These measures won recognition for Sri Lanka in the region and they asked that the ACCFA be held in Sri Lanka this year so that they too can learn from us. Once they showed interest, our Minister, D.M. Swaminathan approved of it and we officially requested that it be held here and that is how we happen to be hosting it this year.

Our strategic partner in this project is the ICRC and they have also provided us some funds for the conference.

This restructuring process has got us many positive benefits and if we look at our prison population, ours is systematically dropping compared to other countries in Asia, where prison populations are on the rise. And this has happened in the last five years.

And the percentage of returnees has also decreased. The percentage of overcrowding has also reduced systematically in the last five years.

When you take direct admissions, in 2013 we had 30,000 prisoners, but by 2016 we had decreased to 24,000. Overcrowding (with 100 percent taken to be ideal) in 2007 was 226%, but in 2016 was 148%. This change was due to both legal amendments and creating more physical space through new prisons.

Q: For how long is this conference?

A. The conference will be held from March 12-16. The opening ceremony will be under the patronage of Minister Swaminathan and Ministry Secretary P. Suresh, at the Hilton. Thereafter, the conference will continue up to March 15. We hope to take the delegates on an inspection tour of our new prison in Angunakolapelessa.

A prisoner is someone who has not been able to fit into a certain framework in his school, community or family. He has strayed from the right path and in order to bring him back to the right path, the officers in charge of such prisoners have to lead by example. So, the officers’ talents, professionalism and qualifications have to be developed and they need to be given the facilities to undertake rehabilitation of the prisoners.

At our new prisons, we have taken that side into account. Prison officers have to be residential; they cannot go home. They too in a sense are imprisoned within these four walls and have to be able to be summoned at any time. So they need to have good quarters and a good environment. In Angunakolapelessa, we have also constructed sports grounds and swimming pools for prison officials.

Q: Have you taken into account capacity issues in these new prisons? Otherwise, would you not have the same problem as you have now, in the future?

A. Yes we have assessed all that when designing the new prisons. For example, when we shifted the Tangalle prison, only 400 prisoners were there. But the new prison can now accommodate up to 1,200. We design prisons taking the future into account. And though we say today that our prison population is decreasing, that could change in future. If there are riots or tension in the country, the population could double and increase all of a sudden.

Q: What do we expect to gain from this conference?

A. This conference will have the participation of prison designers and architects. They will talk with our engineers and discuss how they have designed prisons in their country according to the security level.

Here, with the assistance of the ICRC, we were able to get an assessment of the needs of our prisons.

Prisons cost several millions to build. Angunakolapelessa cost Rs. 5,000 million. So we need to first identify our requirements. Costs increase as the level of security needed increases. So if we build a high security prison and send people who have just a six-month term, there is no point. Thus,we send those short-term offenders to open prisons. In many countries, governments simply build high security prisons without really needing it; thus costs are high and are incurred unnecessarily.

High security prisons need more staff, more technical knowledge and are more stressful.

In a prison with less security, there is a risk of prisoners escaping, but that risk, compared to the management costs and construction of high security prisons, is less.

Q: What is the theme of the conference?

A. We will be addressing five themes: current situation and issues of correctional facilities; developing in-house maintenance and waste management systems to reduce prison running costs; implementation of international recommendations and standards to design correctional facilities with effective, efficient and safe correctional services through adapted technology; building prions and correction facilities according to security levels to reduce the cost of management and facilitate effective treatment and rehabilitation programmes; and cooperation and collaboration among architects, planners and stakeholders in designing new correctional facilities.

Q: Do you think we can provide our prisoners with everything mandated internationally?

A. No we don’t have to do that. These international standards are only guidelines and at times what we have implemented in our open prisons is far ahead of the guidelines. No country in the world has a perfect prison. In every country, they adopt what is indigenous. The guidelines say that these are the minimum standards; you can adapt them according to your own needs.

For women prisoners, we have Bangkok rules and there is such a model prison built in Bangkok. We sent a team to look at that. Accordingly, we built a women’s section in Angunakolapelessa.

In future, we will design four prisons and we have received international expertise for that.

Q: Prisoners usually get a negative impression from society. Do you think it will be easy to get government or public support to improve prison conditions?

A. Yes, society has a wrong impression about prisoners. People think we are building luxury prisons here. But there is a saying that if you are to judge a country and its people, look at its prisons. It basically asks that we look at how we treat the most vulnerable in our society - those who do not have any power to ask for better. And if we do not treat them well, then as a society we have failed.

This is not about giving luxuries to prisoners. This is about providing the most basic of environments to prisoners to live as human beings in captivity. Society’s responsibility is not to have them live in stressful and depraved environments. What is important here is not the length of a man’s sentence, but whether he has been rehabilitated or not during that time period. We should not be happy that a man has been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. What we need is a man who changes his ways, even after a year behind bars. If he comes out in 10 years and kills again, he is more dangerous to society. So we need a good environment for rehabilitation to take place. If they are in an environment which is stressful, without toilets, is overcrowded and has no facilities, those prisons are of no use. That concept is of no use now.

What we must strive for is to change a man’s mind. Even in Buddhism there is a saying that one must feed a man before you give him a sermon.

Thus, however much a prison officer advises a prisoner, it would be of no use if he is living in a stressful environment. Society also has a responsibility to ensure that prison officers look after the prisoners well and not be happy that an officer is beating them up. But many are happy if prisoners are ill-treated. What society has to be interested in is whether the rehabilitation programme is being done well. 


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