Protecting the Prisons | Daily News

Protecting the Prisons

A hornet’s nest has been stirred by the midnight visit of the former Prisons State Minister Lohan Ratwatte to the Anuradhapura Prison, where he is alleged to have intimidated at least two LTTE cadres serving their sentences. Government and Opposition politicians, particularly Tamil politicians, have called on the Government to investigate the matter fully and also ensure the security of all prisoners islandwide.

We have since seen visits to the Anuradhapura and Welikada (which was also visited by the former Prisons State Minister Ratwatte with a group of friends) by several senior ministers to assess the situation and also engage in damage control. In this context, the most important visit was by Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC, whose remit directly extends to the prison system.

After his lengthy visit to the Anuradhapura Prison, Ministry Sabry has assured that there is no issue with the security or facilities offered to the LTTE suspects and other inmates. He charged that Opposition groups are attempting to politicise the Ratwatte rumpus for their own advantage.

This is no doubt a candid assessment and reassurance by the Minister, who has initiated many programmes for the welfare of prisoners. He had also talked to the LTTE inmates, perhaps including those who were allegedly harassed by the former State Minister. They have expressed satisfaction with the enhanced security arrangements already in place, with the caveat that they would feel safer at the Jaffna prison, where it would also be easier to meet family members.

Nevertheless, amidst the COVID pandemic the prison service has enabled meetings with families via video link, which admittedly could be out of reach of certain underprivileged families in remote areas. One suggested remedy is for family members to come to the Jaffna or Vavuniya prisons and place the calls from there. In any case, the Justice Minister should strive to resolve these concerns soon.

“Prisoners are also human beings” proclaims a mural outside the gates of the Welikada Prison in Colombo. The Government has indeed taken many steps to change the perception of prisoners by the rest of society. Prisons are simply not places where they lock up miscreants – their primary aim is to rehabilitate them and give them a purpose in life. The final aim is to release them back to society as reformed individuals who will contribute to the betterment of the society. This is indeed why the prisons in some countries are called ‘corrections centres’.

The Government has been regularly releasing prisoners who have met these criteria, sometimes well before their release date. Recently, the Government released 16 LTTE cadres who had been sentenced under the terms of the PTA, which itself is to be reformed. The prison records of all other LTTE cadres are also under review and more could be released. The Government is also addressing the issue of those imprisoned due to their inability to pay court-imposed fines, sometimes just a few thousand Rupees. Many of them have already been released, a step that also reduces the massive congestion in prisons.

As Public Security Minister Rear Admiral (Rtd) Dr. Sarath Weerasekera said recently, it is also vital to rehabilitate, not imprison, drug addicts. Prisons generally lead them to an even bigger life of crime. In that context, the authorities must root out all criminal gangs that operate from within the prison walls. The jamming of telephone signals within the prisons is a good first step, as crime bosses languishing in prisons are known to direct ‘hits’ using mobile phones smuggled into their cells with the knowledge and help of corrupt prison officials.

The public areas of all prisons should henceforth be equipped with 24/7 surveillance cameras, a glaring omission that has made evidence gathering complicated in the Ratwatte case. It will be hard to establish the true course of events without security camera footage. The camera network of all prisons should be linked to a central system for easier command from a single location.

Regardless of the lack of CCTV evidence, the Government should expedite investigations into the Ratwatte incident and mete out justice so that no one will be able to repeat such stunts in the future. Minister Sabry has indeed promised such a probe.

Many politicians and civil society groups have pointed out that Ratwatte should resign from all State Ministry portfolios (he currently holds the Gem and Jewellery portfolio) and become an ordinary MP, lest that State Ministry power is used to influence any officials, eyewitnesses and inmates. This is a reasonable request that the State Minister should consider earnestly in the interest of justice and fair play.

Again, the investigation should be 100 per cent impartial, involving those who have no connections to the former State Minister and to the prisons system itself. That is the only way to ensure that the investigation is not derailed midway, like so many other probes against politicians in this country under all Governments. This incident also brings into focus the need to bolster external and internal security in prisons, perhaps by deploying the military and/or the STF. The prisoners and the society sorely deserve it.

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