Prisons must be institutes for correction | Daily News


Prisons must be institutes for correction

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited the Welikada Prison recently seen talking to some of the inmates.  Picture courtesy President’s Media Division
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited the Welikada Prison recently seen talking to some of the inmates. Picture courtesy President’s Media Division

Within two weeks of granting amnesty to more than 500 prisoners on the occasion of the 72nd Independence Day, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made an unannounced visit to Welikada Prison to get a firsthand look into the problems and grievances of prisoners and prison conditions.

The inmates who received Presidential pardon are those convicted of minor offenses. None of the inmates convicted of major offenses including those issued with the death penalty were not included in the list of prisoners who received amnesty. The amnesty has been granted on the recommendation of Justice Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva.

During his surprise visit, the President engaged in talking to the detainees who were walking outdoors and asked about their well-being. Many among them were imprisoned for drug use. The inmates told the President the prison is overcrowded and has three times more inmates than its capacity.

President Rajapaksa, who courageously met the student demonstrators in front of the President’s House last week to discuss their demands, this time too disregarded advice of his security officers and visited the cell where the Tamil terrorist suspects were held and listened to their problems and grievances.

Prison reforms

One thing came to light during the visit was the immediate need for prison reforms. These are few examples of the need for early legal reforms. The suspects remanded for years as it might take very long period 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 Over-crowded prisons are bursting at seams, while no serious efforts could be seen to amend the outdated laws, some of which we had inherited from Roman Dutch Laws imposed by colonial rulers over a century ago.

Some detainees told the President that because of filing cases, allegedly based on false information, the trials of those cases take a long time and as a result, they have to languish in prison for a long time. The President said a committee would be appointed to look into the situation.

There were shocking revelations about 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 person cost the government Rs 700 per day approximately. 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 under the existing legal provisions.

Many disclosures were made from time to time about pathetic conditions in prisons, lack of sanitation, cruel treatments meted out to suspects and prisoners, corrupt practices of prison guards and to rot in the whole system. Although, the ministers in charge of prison reforms in the last few decades assured the 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.

There was a proposal to relocate the Welikada Prison at a rural place. However implementation of the proposal has been unduly delayed. The hardened criminals were to be transferred to prisons outside cities, but allegedly, they have 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.

One has to acknowledge that the prison guards also are under stress due to heavy staff shortage. The statistics revealed that a substantial number of 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.

Rehabilitation programmes

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.

During the last government, United Nations Special Rapporteur visited Sri Lankan prisons and reported that 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.

As the prisons are overcrowded, 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.

As this newspaper pointed out in its editorial two days ago, with his military background, President Gotabaya 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.


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