Undue delays, denial of justice | Daily News

Undue delays, denial of justice

There were shocking revelations about the inadequacy of legal provisions to release prisoners who are unable to pay small fines or remand prisoners who are unable to deposit money or sureties to fulfill bail conditions. According to some lawmakers, more than 50% of the prisoners and remanded suspects languishing behind bars in abject surroundings due to above two reasons.

According to statistics, the cost of providing meals to a prisoner cost the government Rs 671 per day. When a suspect who cannot furnish a surety of Rs 10,000 is kept in prison for 15 days it will cost more than Rs 10,000. However, the suspect cannot be given bail under the existing legal provisions. Another instance revealed in Parliament was about a Buddhist monk who was to be bailed out with the condition that he should produce blood-relations as surety. The monk’s parents had expired and he did not have any siblings. For a monk vowed for celibacy, there cannot be children. “How can he find blood-relations?”, an opposition member asked.

These are a few examples of the need for early legal reforms. The suspects are remanded for years as it might take years to complete the legal process. Sometimes, the verdict and the crime are decade or more apart. Over-crowded prisons are bursting at seams, while no serious efforts could be seen to amend the outdated laws, some of which we had inherited from Roman Dutch Laws imposed by colonial rulers over a century ago.

Pathetic conditions

Many disclosures were also made during the debate about pathetic conditions in prisons, lack of sanitation, cruel treatment meted out to suspects and prisoners, corrupt practices of prison guards and rot in the whole system. Although, the ministers in charge of prison reforms in the last few decades, assured Parliament about their commitment to make the prisons system more humane and effective by adhering to the UN international standards, so far no serious reforms had taken place.

According to some members who spoke in the parliamentary debate last week, the proposed relocation of the Welikada Prison has been unduly delayed. The hardened criminals were to be transferred to prisons outside cities, but they have effectively resisted such efforts as those influential prisoners have a well-organised system in the prison to get telephones, drugs, liquor and other requirement by bribing some prison officers, they alleged.

The prison guards also are under stress due to heavy staff shortage. The statistics revealed that nearly half the prison guard vacancies have not been filled, thus adding a heavy burden on existing staff. A recent survey conducted by en eminent team of psychologists stated that 38% prison guards were suffering from stress disorders, adversely affecting their performances.

A senior official acknowledged the problem. “Using modern technology for security measures in prisons, professionalizing the staff at the Prisons Department, improving the rehabilitation programmes provided for prisoners are the other areas that we are focusing on to improve the standards of the prisons system in this country.”

The problems such as overcrowding of prisons and lack of sanitary and health facilities result in outbursts by prisoners, sometimes they even turn into violent riots.

Welikada prison has become the scene of repeated protests by women. In the recent past, a group clambered onto the roof to protest living conditions, and delays in court hearings. One of the reasons for the riot was that the hardened women prisoners wanted the prison authorities to cancel the transfer of senior female jailor. It was alleged that the prisoners wanted that officer to remain because she was linked to the system that facilitates the illegal activities of prisoners.

Recently a video footage depicting prison officials brutally assaulting unarmed inmates at Angunakolapelessa Prison was released in social media depicting it as evidence of what life within prison walls is like. Following which, Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners’ Chairperson lawyer, Senaka Perera said that incident too showed the imperative requirement for early prison reforms.

Two years ago, United Nations Special Rapporteur Juan E. Mendez, who visited Sri Lanka said the prisons were notorious for being congested, poorly supplied and badly funded. He also referred to acute lack of adequate sleeping accommodation, sanitation, extreme heat and insufficient ventilation and inadequacy of medical facilities, recreational activities and educational opportunities.

Overcrowding prisons

Citing the issue of overcrowding, the UN official said number of inmates exceeding capacity by well over 200% or 300%. Vavuniya Remand Prison in particular was a striking example of overcrowding. One of its halls hosted 170 prisoners when Mendez visited, which gave 0.6 metres of space per person. In the same building, other prisoners were forced to sleep on the staircase for lack of space in the detention areas. In addition, cells designed for one person were occupied by four or five inmates.

In these circumstances, there is an urgent need to take measures to make more non-violent offences bailable and to experiment with alternatives to incarceration. One minor amendment could be the imposition of a few days or prison sentence instead of a small sum of money that could not be afforded by some suspects. If a suspect has already served few days in remand custody, that could off-set the short imprisonment period and he or she could be bailed out without surety, at least in case of minor offenses.

Another proposal made was to install pay-phones in each prison so that prisoners had a way to communicate with their families, especially if they lived far away. Furthermore, the prison authorities could keep a record of those calls. This would also reduce the demand for mobile phones that are routinely smuggled into prisons. However, one has to acknowledge that this may not prevent the drug smugglers from using mobile phones to continue their illicit deals from within prison walls.



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