Cleaning the mess | Daily News

Cleaning the mess

The subject of prison overcrowding has come to the fore again following reports that the country's prisons are accommodating twice the maximum capacity. According to Prisons Spokesman Chandana Ekanayake the maximum capacity available for inmates in the prisons islandwide is 13,200 and this has now jumped to 26,000 since November 25. He said in some prisons, inmates have exceeded their capacity by as much as 300%. Among them 62 percent are suspects awaiting the hearing of their cases to a conclusion and of them those detained for drug related offences exceeded 50 percent. Around 74 percent who were detained last year were in connection to drug related offences.

This certainly is an appalling situation and, what is more, fraught with high risk. It will need only a small fuse to be lit for the powder keg to explode. Prison riots are nothing new to this country and steps should have been taken to mitigate the situation by reducing overcrowding long ago. Unlike in the past, the massive increase in the crime rate and the free availability of dangerous drugs resulting in the escalation of drug related offences has only added more inmates to our prisons that are bursting at the seams. This could result in the situation getting out of hand and a massive problem in the hands of the Government.

The treatment of our prisoners too, leaves much to be desired. There was an incident at the Mahara Prison some time ago where several inmates were killed as a result of indiscriminate police firing. Prisoners too are human beings who have erred along the way and are paying a price. But the price should not be disproportionate to whatever the offence committed. Prisoners too should be treated like ordinary human beings in keeping with the slogans prominently displayed at the entrance to the Welikada Prison. Doubling the capacity held in prisons means prisoners, of necessity, are forced to undergo unbelievable privations and adapt themselves to a life of squalor and sleaze. If the whole intention of imprisoning an individual is to reform such an individual prison life as it is constituted in this country will only have the opposite effect. Those leaving the prisons will only come out bitter and disillusioned men and women angry with the world and society at large and are more likely to re-enter the world of crime and criminality.

Former Prisons Reforms Minister Lohan Ratwatte is on record saying that they don't intend to build any more prisons in the country and that prisoners will be released on a phased out system depending on the nature of their offences. Here we have a situation where no more prisons are going to be built, the inmates held in the existing prisons have overshot their capacity by 100 percent. How long can this situation be maintained short of massive riots breaking out in our prisons sometime soon when inmates are held like animals in a zoo? Worse, according to Government rebel MP Dullas Alahapperuma during a recent visit he made to the Welikada Prison he saw young children keeping company with their mothers held for drug related offences, in the same cell. True, children should be united with their mothers serving prison sentences. But a prison cell is hardly the place for such unions. It will only expose the tiny tots to the worst aspects of prison life and make them take after their elders some day. The young children should be united with their incarcerated mothers well away from prison cells and in more acceptable environments. The authorities should also pay attention to the education and upbringing of these children, so that they may not go astray and one day add to the already overcrowded prisons.

Since the Government has no intention to build more prisons, a way should be found to reduce overcrowding. One such way is to release prisoners who have reached old age and those who are terminally ill. They certainly would not pose a danger to society given their incapacity and feeble circumstances. A system should also be devised to release remand prisoners unable to pay fines. The Government should also explore the concept of Open Air Prisons like in the more developed countries where prisoners go about freely in vast expanses of territory and interact with each other unlike at present where the cramped conditions in the prisons give way to explosive tempers and eventual riots.

This would, certainly, successfully deal with the perennial problem of prison overcrowding while also overcoming deplorable sanitary conditions and squalor in our prisons. The concept should also allow prison officials and staff to have a closer supervision of the inmates and rid the prisons of their subterranean life. We say this because overcrowding and the cramped conditions allow prisoners easy leeway for their illegal activity conducted behind bars. There were recent reports that certain drug lords operating from overseas had called their local contacts serving behind bars over the phone. The murder of High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya was planned and executed from behind prison walls. Our prisons are one whole eyesore of sleaze and murky deeds. The open air concept should therefore serve to mitigate much of the ills and problems bedevilling our prisons.

The prison system is indeed in need of a thorough shakeup.


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