In yesterday’s edition, we carried a picture where the Chairman of the People’s Bank Sujeewa Rajapakse is shown presenting scholarships to children whose mother and father both are in prison, at the ‘Prisoners’ Day’ event organized by the Prisoners’ Welfare Association. According to the accompanying caption the People’s Bank has been extending support to this Social Responsibility Project organized by the PWA since 2011.
This indeed is a worthy gesture on the part of the People’s Bank which should also be emulated by private banks and others in the corporate world. After all, the child prisoners cannot be held responsible for the follies of the parents and it is up to those responsible members of society to do everything possible to ensure their lives are not disrupted in any way and they live a normal existence. When both parents are behind bars their offspring sans a proper guardian, more often than not, are left to fend for themselves without any protection or parental care. Needless to say, in such a situation the education of these children would come to a standstill making them venture out to illegal activities, taking after their parents. Also, the absence of an education naturally would mean a bleak future for these souls which would invariably end in a life of crime. Such an eventuality should be prevented at any cost. Therefore any move by whatever quarter to prevent the derailment of the education of these children is praiseworthy indeed. Ideally, the State authorities would also do well to set upon a scheme whereby tabs are kept on the children of prisoners to ensure they are not neglected and go astray and especially their education is not hindered.
Meanwhile, the topic of Prison congestion has come up for discussion time and again both among the authorities and the general public but little headway has been made to find a solution to this vexed problem. According to a recent media report prison capacity has exceeded by as much as 100 percent. Although all the prisons in the country are built to hold a total of 13,241 prisoners they are presently accommodating 29, 000 inmates.
This indeed is an appalling situation. No wonder our prisons are today described as hellholes and rather than rehabilitating inmates held for minor offences in truth what the system is doing is driving them further to a life of crime and criminality upon release. Urgent steps should be taken to address the situation. Prisoners are also human and it is due to the force of circumstance that most of them find themselves behind bars. They deserve to be treated humanely by making prisons livable for their inmates. As mentioned, if the prison system is meant to rehabilitate prisoners to put them on the right path it is the opposite that can be expected under the present circumstances. Is it any wonder that our prisons today have become repositories of crime, sleaze and other dark deeds? How can any supervision be exercised on the inmates if our prisons are bursting at the seams in this fashion? Some remedies should be found to ease the congestion. Since the Government has decided not to build any more prisons, as a first measure, steps should be taken to release all minor offenders and those held due to their inability to pay fines. Instead what we see is those held for minor offenses being released on Independence Day or for Vesak or Poson. But what really happens is they are replaced in no time by others thrown in. So there in fact is no diminution of the numbers.
Steps should be taken by the relevant authorities to systematically release minor offenders after studying their cases. In the alternative special rehabilitation programmes should be launched targeting this lot, away from the prisons. In advanced countries, the concept of prison is undergoing drastic change. Offenders are no longer being shoved into prison buildings but live in open-air spaces in a conducive environment and are allowed to interact with families and loved ones.
We too should think of such an arrangement if any more prisons are not going to be built. This will also remove the stigma attached to the children of prisoners who under the present circumstance are liable to suffer due to follies of their elders. It will also make the inmates better prepared to enter society once released. What needs is an innovative programme to make our prisons habitable and a conducive environment for the inmates to lead a comfortable existence free of hassle and harassment.
Meanwhile, while prison overcrowding is a serious issue that has to be urgently addressed, the shenanigans that are going on inside the prison walls too should be the focus of attention of the authorities. As already mentioned, our prisons today are reeking of sleaze and dark deeds. There is today a subterranean life in our prisons for which much aiding and abetting is being provided by corrupt prison officials. One should also not forget that the killing of High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya was also planned and organised from behind the prison walls. Going by this it is evident that our prisons rather than functioning as correction centres meant to have offenders rehabilitated have themselves become hives of criminal activity for which remedies have to be found by the concerned authorities.