Needed: A shakeup of our prisons | Daily News


Needed: A shakeup of our prisons

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has again broken new ground by becoming the first Head of State to visit the Welikada Prison, Colombo, and interact with inmates. His visit on Monday – once again, un-announced – enabled him to obtain first-hand knowledge of the conditions prevailing in the prisons and the problems and hardships faced by the inmates.

Our front page picture in yesterday's edition showed the President right up front with the inmates, listening to their woes, and travails within the confines of the walls of Welikada.

They were told by the President that he would appoint a Committee to look into their problems and improve conditions in the prisons. The President learnt from prisoners that Welikada currently hosts thrice the number of inmates that it is designed to accommodate. He was informed that a majority of the inmates were incarcerated for minor offences and in connection with cases that have got unduly prolonged for want of solid evidence.

The conditions of our prisons leave a lot to be desired and most prisons are bursting at the seams. This is a telling indictment of our society not only on the rising crime rate. It also exposes the failure on the part of our religious leaders, entrusted with the moral upkeep of society, to cause an impact by reducing the propensity for crime.

Today, crime has taken on new forms and dimensions that require our prisons to adapt themselves to cope with the fresh challenges. But are our prisons equal to the task? Our prisons and prison administration have come in for much attention and public focus in recent times, chiefly due to various incidents occurring behind their walls.

Chief among these, no doubt, relates to the drug business where tried and convicted drug dealers carry on with their business in cahoots with corrupt prison officials. The tales that transpire now and then about the sleazy underbelly of prison life sometimes even defy imagination making one wonder if prisons are meant to rehabilitate and reform offenders or whether they are actually a home away from home for criminals.

It is believed that the assassination of former High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya was plotted, planned and, the operation even directed, from behind the walls of Welikada by a notorious drug lord who was at the receiving end of the late judge’s punitive decrees.

Over the years there have been reports in the news media of how convicts with underworld clout had operated mobile telephones from inside their cells, connecting with henchmen outside to continue with their criminal ventures. Many are the stories of heroin being smuggled into prisons for consumption or for trade among inmates. Firearms have also been reportedly smuggled in on occasion, possibly to fend off threats from elements within.

All this points to an active underworld life in our prisons replete with sleaze and intrigue where convicted criminals operate freely through their extensive networks in the outside world with whom they are in constant contact. And it has been long acknowledged that none of this could occur without the complicity of corrupt elements with the Prisons staff itself. How much such insidious corruption seeps higher up to the political world that is, itself, infamous for its own corruption, is left to our imagination.

There is, therefore, a need for a complete overhaul of our prison administration if our prisons are to be kept free of these evil influences.

Coming, as he does, from a military background, President Rajapaksa’s experience as a strict disciplinarian no doubt steels him to determinedly see through the necessary changes and disciplinary action to redress the situation.

Indeed, his very practice of un-announced visits and inspections of State sector operations and installations, will, no doubt, help in creating an atmosphere that will keep everyone on their toes – a deterrent, as it were, from indulging in corrupt practices on the one hand and, on the other, sprucing up work performance and efficiency.

There needs to be a clean break from the present moribund system that encourages the continuation of the vicious cycle.

It has long been known that our prisons, including remand prisons, are overcrowded. The reasons are manifold: ranging from unrealistically harsh sentencing to delays in prosecution due to either lack of evidence or the reduced forensic capacities of the authorities to provide the evidence.

The authorities must also explore the possibilities of having other mechanisms, in addition to incarceration, as responses to different types of crimes.

The prisons should adapt themselves to become genuine institutions of ‘correction’. After all, the Prison’s main objective is to 'correct' human behaviour and prisons are known as ‘correctional’ centres in many countries.

Hopefully, the President's decision to appoint a committee to look into these matters will bear fruit in the near future. The collaboration of Parliament, as well as various experts and civil society interest groups, is important to take such reform forward.

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