School is just a hop, skip and a jump away from the hostel for *Suranga (name changed) but his enthusiasm to go to school, especially to “learn computer” makes him get up at 5 a.m. By 7.45, clad in a white shirt and trouser, he is ready to join the group of students from his [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

A stepping stone back to society

The newly opened prison school- Suneetha Vidyalaya, close to the Watareka Open Prison Camp, has given new hope to young inmates

School is just a hop, skip and a jump away from the hostel for *Suranga (name changed) but his enthusiasm to go to school, especially to “learn computer” makes him get up at 5 a.m. By 7.45, clad in a white shirt and trouser, he is ready to join the group of students from his ‘hostel’ to walk to school, accompanied by a prison jailor.

First time at a computer: A whole new and exciting world opens up for *Suranga. Pix by Athula Devapriya

The scene shifts to the IT lab of the school. Here Suranga is seated in front of a computer, deeply absorbed in the lesson. He lifts his head only to narrate his story.

This 17-year-old from Bambalapitiya was caught by the police along with his brother while they were trying to help their uncle in his drug business. He had not been one bit keen on his studies back then, as he was more into earning a fast buck, but now it is a complete turnaround, says a smiling Suranga adding that he felt so happy when, for the first time, he got to work on a computer after coming to the Suneetha Vidyalaya in Watareka.

It is a new lease of life for many others like Suranga, the young offenders at the newly opened prisons school- Suneetha Vidyalaya, a landmark project initiated by the Prisons Department in collaboration with the Education Ministry to provide young inmates aged 16-30, an opportunity to pursue formal education, regardless of the prison term they serve.

Suranga proudly says he even delivered the ‘Thought for the Day’ in English at the morning assembly- a daily activity in school, aimed at improving the students’ English speech skills.

Opened in March this year, the school, located adjacent to the Watareka Open Prison Camp, is run by the Prisons Department with the facilities and assistance provided by the Education Ministry and caters to the young offenders from the Ambepussa training camp and from various prisons islandwide.

The school principal: W.L.D.R.M. Wijethunga

“Most of these children are school drop-outs. They have not been able to continue their studies due to various problems at home, which have resulted in them going astray. Robbery and drugs being the offences most of them are guilty of, they serve a prison term of less than five years. They have lost the love and affection of their parents. So the concept of this school is to make these young offenders feel they too are ‘school going children’ and not prisoners. That is why this is built away from the prison environment,” says the ASP Watareka Open Prison Camp, Anura Gunawardena.

Once they have served their term, a special committee, made up of prison welfare officials, volunteers and other prison officials in consultation with the Commissioner General of Prisons, will take over the children to re-integrate them to society, find employment or help them continue their studies, the ASP says.

The school, under its first stage, provides education to about 64 young boys in three separate classes-

Summer huts: A place for inmates to chill out during breaktime

Karuna, Meththa and Mudhitha allocated for Grade 8, Ordinary Level and informal education. While Grade 8 and O/L classes follow the normal school curriculum targeting to prepare the children for the Ordinary Level examination and even encourage them to do the Advanced Level and seek University education, the latter caters to those who have not had any formal education before. Those lacking the ability to read and write are taught the basics and gradually taken to a higher level, the school principal W.L.D.R.M. Wijethunga told the Sunday Times.
In addition, the school currently has commenced a Vocational Training course on sewing, with a few other courses like carpentry, electrical and plumbing soon to be introduced. At present, there are 10 students who have not completed their education even up to Grade 5, who have preferred to undergo the three month vocational training course on sewing instead. At the end of the course, they will receive a Government recognized certificate. Speaking to the Sunday Times some of the young inmates said they have learnt quite a lot from basics to stitching uniforms, pillow cases, shirts etc.

The school, set against a spacious and relaxed environment, is also equipped with an IT and a Science lab. Various activities such as sports meets, drama festivals, bakthi geetha programmes, sil programmes, special lectures aimed at moral upliftment are also organised from time to time at the prison school.

The school administration is made up of eight staff members including the school principal. That there is a very close relationship maintained between teachers and the students was obvious when a teacher was heard addressing a student as ‘putha’ and the student immediately responded to carry out the instructions. The student was 18-year-old *Rasun from Embilipitiya, whom the teacher identifies as a creative individual. To prove his teacher’s point, Rasun quickly opens a locker and takes out a few ornaments he has made using coconut shells. “I made all these during my free time at school and the teachers helped me by giving paints and other decorative items,” Rasun says adding that he intends to take up a job in carpentry and also to make ornaments as a side job, once he leaves the prison.

Rasun is not the only student here who dreams of a better tomorrow; who makes plans for the future using the guidance received from Suneetha Vidyalaya as a stepping stone.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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