Trapped are these innocents for no fault of their own. From the time of their birth to the tender age of five, the most formative years of their lives, they have known no other environment but that within the four walls of the Welikada Prison. There are about 20 little ones whose mothers have been [...]


Happier memories out of darkness

Children who are forced to spend their formative years at Welikada Prison, for no crime of theirs, now have something to smile about in their new-look abode

Bringing colour to their world: Mother and son look at the newly done paintings and right; at the Lama-Surekum Ward: The guests and others involved in the project with ‘doer’ Shiromi Masakorala at the far left

Trapped are these innocents for no fault of their own. From the time of their birth to the tender age of five, the most formative years of their lives, they have known no other environment but that within the four walls of the Welikada Prison.

There are about 20 little ones whose mothers have been imprisoned for some reason or other. Some of these children have been brought here as newborns after their mothers while being incarcerated have delivered them at the Castle Street Hospital for Women and others have accompanied their mothers either as babies or toddlers. Their mothers are serving long-terms of imprisonment including life sentences for drug-related activity or murder.

When we visit the ‘Lama Surekum Ward’ within Welikada’s Female Ward on January 29, there is frenzied activity and an earnestness to meet a deadline……a golden-yellow lion smiles down from a wall as do a green frog and other animals.

Behind prison bars they will be but the Lama Surekum Ward is being overhauled and the toilets done up. Brand new beds made of jak with lockers by each have been brought in and a touch of home with a ‘corner’ adorned by second-hand toys for the children to cuddle and board games for the slightly older ones set apart, while just outside is a play area with brightly-painted swings, a merry-go-round, a see-saw and a slide.

The deadline was February 4 and as Sri Lanka commemorated its 70th Independence Day, there was a glimmer of hope and an offer of better facilities for these mothers and children by the Hemas Group of Companies — which is also celebrating its 70th birthday this year – in close collaboration with the prison authorities.

Pic by Indika Handuwala

The afternoon’s events linked to the opening of the refurbished Lama Surekum Ward with the participation of the Commissioner-General of Prisons H.M.N.C. Dhanasinghe and Hemas Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Steven Enderby and other distinguished guests also included cricket veterans, Roshan Mahanama and Kumar Sangakkara, applauding and encouraging a six-over game between prisoners. These will not only be unforgettable memories for the mothers and their children but they will also give them comfort that they are not outcasts forgotten by society.

We chat with a young mother all in white whose four-year-old plays outside within calling distance. Not only life’s cruelty but also its unfairness epitomizes her story. Brought up in a respectable family, where her mother was a teacher and her father an electrician, it was at the “punchi wayasa” (tender and impressionable age) of 16 that she left her secure home as she had “fallen in love” with a youth. What she did not know was that he was from a family active in the underworld.

Aravul,” were her lot thereafter, she says with emotion cracking up her voice, adding that there was turmoil in her life. When her husband went to prison, she was the mother of a one-year-old son and when he came out seven years later, she became an unwitting victim of the gang warfare between her husband’s family and another underworld family.

The gang rivalry targeted the women, she says, adding that they planted drugs in a wela behind her home and tipped off the police that she was a dealer. Her son was then attending school and she was taken into custody but was able to secure bail four months later. However, by that time her husband had been killed and the family got clear signals that she too would be murdered in revenge attacks as both sides were resorting to tit-for-tat killings. She handed over her son to her mother to look after and went abroad, foolishly without thinking of the disastrous consequences of jumping bail. Now her eldest son is 25 years old and working abroad.

A comfortable ‘home’ within a jail

She also built up her life abroad, day by day, and met and married a Sri Lankan and had twins, a boy and a girl, seven years old and the boy who is with her behind bars now. What she did not realize was that she had been tried in absentia and sentenced to life imprisonment. The moment she landed in Sri Lanka with her family she was arrested at the airport.

Her husband still works abroad and her twins from this marriage are being looked after by him. Steadfastly he visits her when he comes back to Sri Lanka once a year with the hope that one day soon there will be a permanent family reunion.

Looking tenderly at her son, she tousles his hair and whispers that he was 1½ years old when she was hauled to prison from the airport and has been with her since then for 2½ years. “Mathakaya thiyenne mehe gena,” she murmurs, adding that his memories are all of the prison, while she awaits her appeal to be heard.

The artist who is heavily involved in making the Lama Surekum Ward a place of good memories as against a dingy jail is also a woman, full of smiles, who readily shares her life story with us. “Yes, I am putting the final touches to the paintings,” she smiles, adding that the prison under the guidance of Senior Superintendent Chandana Ekanayake has been an educational institute gently directing them onto the correct path. “These walls safeguard us from the world in which atrocities are numerous,” she says.

Her tale too is similar in its conclusion although the crime is fraud. Married off to a person of so-called eminence, she and her children led a very affluent and comfortable life until her husband got entangled in fraud and requested her to take the fall. Without a thought she did, she says, as she cared for him deeply. But since her incarceration, she has not even glimpsed his shadow.

“I was devastated. I survived by improving my talent in art and dance and have learnt to smile again,” she says, giving us a dazzling smile, as she awaits her release in April. She is extending a creative hand to make the lot of the little prison children better and brighter.

They made it possible
Very basic were the facilities for these children who have been compelled to stay with their mothers as they are very young, says Senior Superintendent of Prisons, Chandana Ekanayake, pointing out that the prison buildings are very old having been built during British times in the mid-1800s.

His humanity is obvious when he says that these children need special attention, for they are growing up outside their families, without their fathers and no guidance, in an environment not conducive for such young ones.

Senior Superintendent Chandana Ekanayake

There was a dire need to develop the Lama Surekum Ward and it was then that the Hemas Group of Companies came forward with hands outstretched to these hapless women and their children.

“The gullies were overflowing and newborns were sleeping in a room nearby,” says the ‘doer’ behind the Hemas’ ‘Piyawara Singithi Diriya’ Prison Project, Shiromi Masakorala, who is Executive Director of the Hemas Outreach Foundation as she accompanies us around the Lama Surekum Ward along with the Foundation’s Manager Mindika Thilakarathna. Well-loved cricketer Roshan Mahanama is the honorary Brands Ambassador of the project.

Initially, Hemas looked into the meal plan of these children, under this project which is very close to their hearts, says Ms. Masakorala, explaining that they began supplying dry rations, milk food, samaposha and biscuits, along with other basic necessities such as  pampers and soap. “Then we turned our attention towards the infrastructure to make ‘good memories’ for these children.”

It is Mr. Ekanayake who adds that it is a major effort to make the children have a “pleasant stay in an unpleasant place”. Earlier, along with his staff he had to go with the begging bowl for such items as baby food and pampers.

Usually, the children too would get the ‘baldiyen ena kaema’ (food from the bucket), we understand, with breakfast being rice and pol-sambol everyday except Wednesday, when for variety they would get bread and pol-sambol. Lunch would be rice, mallun, fish and one other curry and dinner rice, a starchy vegetable and chicken.

As we visualize how difficult it is to get little ones to eat their food even in homes where they can be tempted with that ‘extra something’, Ms. Masakorala says that the monthly nutritional expenses of the children in the Lama Surekum Ward are willingly borne by Hemas employees, while the refurbishment costing around Rs. 3.5 million has been primarily with personal donations from the Senior Management of Hemas and the balance by the Foundation.

The Hemas Project within the Welikada Prison has got the blessings of the Children’s Secretariat of the Women and Child Affairs Ministry, while the work at ground level was handled by personnel of the Civil Defence Force.

Maintenance and sustainability will be ensured through effective monitoring by the prisons authorities, Hemas and the Children’s Secretariat, assures Ms. Masakorala.

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