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21st June 1998

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Behind those high walls

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

They are right amidst us, in the heart of bus tling Borella. Some of us may be passing the Magazine Prison everyday. But how many of us cast a thought about the tragedy and heartbreak behind those high fortified walls.

Last week we visited the female ward of the Welikada prison. A dusty gravel road snaking along the wall of the main prison complex leads to the prison hospital and the female section. Women guards in their steel grey uniforms greet all visitors politely, but firmly. They have a job to do.

Once inside, the mind is assailed by stories hundreds of pathetic stories of a system of justice, or should we say injustice, gone awry.

That day there were 395 women prisoners: 295 on remand, 93 convicted inmates and seven who have appealed against their convictions. Those were the roll-call numbers.

But on a bed lies a tiny baby, just 25 days old. That little boy in his blue baby shirt, with a fish on it, is fast asleep, oblivious to the miserable surroundings he has been born into.

Then there is a seven-month-old girl with her dark ringlets and precocious smile. The long dormitory in which her mother stands with the child in her arms is sans beds, with all types of women loitering around. Another baby is curled up on the cement floor in deep slumber.

The dormitory has thick wire-netting from the half-walls to the roof. Hundreds of "sili sili" bags bursting with the worldly possessions of the inmates are hung on the wire-netting, while heaps of "mega" plastic bottles filled with water are strewn all over the floor.

A little way off three-year-old D is alone with her montessori teacher in a bright and airy classroom. The class has coloured desks and chairs, paintings by children, toys and posters. Where are the other children? we query, and the teacher explains they have gone to court with their mothers.

These are the children in prison, the children who are apparently compelled to pay for their mothers' crimes, some which seem quite minor. These are also the innocent victims serving time due to the delays or backlog in our system of justice. It reminds me of Victorian England, with all its injustices, that Charles Dickens wrote about so passionately, after having been in and out of jail as a child, along with his family, because his father was in debt.

For these 13 children, five of whom are below one year, who live with their mothers in prison, there is no other life but this. Two more will join this number soon as their mothers are at the De Soysa Maternity Hospital for their confinements.

The children, some of them here since birth, are like caged birds, not seeing the outside world, or seeing it through the barred windows of the Black Maria (the vehicle which transports prisoners) on their "trips" to court and back with their mothers.

They live their formative years seeing only a little patch of blue sky, among all sorts of women drug addicts, commercial sex workers and vagrants, hearing obscenities and abuse as their daily routine. They do not know what family life is, some of them have never seen their fathers or siblings.

The tiny tots looked at the male colleagues who accompanied us with awe and studied them carefully. For men are a rare sight, only working parties who come for one job or another from the main prison.

The plight of these children was aptly portrayed like this: sometime ago, when the teacher asked them to draw animals, they only drew cats because there were no other animals in the prison. Now that shortcoming has been overcome, with large posters of animals hung on the walls of the montessori.

At five years, these children are torn apart even from their mothers and placed in children's homes on the orders of court.

"The children are allowed to be with their mothers until they are five. Then on a court order they are moved to children's homes until such time as their mothers come out of prison, or they can arrange for someone responsible to look after them," said Mrs. Kumari Ratnaweera, female jailor in charge of the ward.

According to her the women have been taken in for alleged crimes ranging from murder, being suspected LTTErs, drug trafficking, drug addiction and having forged documents such as identity cards to vagrancy and prostitution.

The terrible impact of the inequities of the system of justice on the lives of ordinary women is apparent here. The much-vaunted policy that any person is innocent until proven guilty sounds hollow in the cases of most women found here.

A tragic example is one woman nicknamed "Kirikenda" after her alleged crime, who has been on remand for 13 years. What did she do? "Mama vasa demma mage hamputhage kemeta" (I poisoned my master), she says humbly, adding that she was beaten, starved and bathed with filthy water by her mistress. So in her foolishness she laced the family's "kirikenda" with poison powder brought to de-tick the doggy.

Of course, it is left to a judge to decide whether she is guilty or not, but why has it taken such a long time her file is missing, burnt during the arson attack on the Mount Lavinia court...and she languishes in jail without a hearing.

Mrs. Ratnaweera, who took charge of the ward a year ago has now taken up her case and appealed to the prison welfare officers to do something.

We meet the 25-day-old baby's mother in the baby room. Though she smiles as she chats with us in Tamil, with one of our colleagues acting as interpreter, her eyes are sad and haunted. What had she done? She was from Vavuniya. She and her husband were running a boutique. Eight months ago, her husband's friend was arrested on suspicion of being an LTTE member. They came for her husband in the middle of the night. Not only did they arrest her husband, but also herself. She was just a month pregnant then.

He husband is at the Kalutara prison and she is here with her new-born baby. Her two-year-old daughter is in her village being looked after by relatives. What does the future hold for her only despair because she is a victim having "no dates". What this means is that there are certain categories of people who can be detained indefinitely under security laws, without being produced in court. She does not know how long she will be in prison.

As we are led through the garden, we see a shrine with a statue of Lord Buddha and some women with palms folded in prayer and meditation. What thoughts must be passing through their minds hopes of freedom or at least hopes of getting justice or the right to a hearing.

Yes, some of them may have committed crimes like prisoner M who says: "Mama mini maruwa." (I committed murder).

Prisoner M is little D's mother. We spoke to her in the section where the women were at work. The routines of the remand and convicted prisoners differ the remandees in civilian clothing are not supposed to do any work, but the women convicts are allocated a certain amount of work daily. They weave cloth and make rope. They also wear a light grey uniform.

The rules for visits by relatives also vary the remandees can meet visitors six days a week, except Sunday, the convicted prisoners just once a month and those on appeal once a week.

For lean prisoner M from Chilaw life seems to have been unjust from the time she married. Her face shows the lines of sorrow and hardship. Her husband was a drunk who beat her regularly. One fateful day she fought back in "hadisi copaya" (sudden anger). She struck him with a pole and he was dead before she knew what had happened. Soon after she was imprisoned, D was born.

She is serving a five and a half year term, probably for culpable homicide.

She bides her time, longing for freedom. For her it is reachable...........when the prison gate closes behind her she will place D in the care of nuns who are already looking after her 13-year-old daughter and head for the Middle East in search of greener pastures to provide a better future for her children.

Does D ask about her father? No, says prisoner M, how can you miss someone you have never known.

Another hapless case is B (46) from Bombay, India's commercial capital. Like five other Indian women at Welikada serving time for drug offences, B a Roman Catholic, repents that she unwittingly became a drug courier.

She was working in a bar-cum-restaurant as a waitress in Bombay, when a friend offered her a trip to Sri Lanka to take some wedding sarees for a Lankan. B grabbed the chance of a lifetime , having never travelled abroad.

At the Colombo airport, the bag which was given by her friend was detected as containing three kilos of heroin, a sizeable quantity. She is serving an 18-year term. That was in 1993 and B spends her time weaving and praying.

"That's my salvation," she says pointing to a statue of Christ, from where she sits weaving. She longs for word from her husband and sons, aged 24, 22 and 11, the last of whom was only seven when she came on her much-looked forward to trip. She writes to them but there has never been a reply .... only silence.

After 18 years what? .... join a convent and live a life of seclusion.

Reams and reams can be written about the women, but what of their children? To the government they are a forgotten entity. No budget is allocated for their needs. The milk, a packet of milk powder per week per child or as recommended by the doctor is bought under the allocation for medical care of prisoners.

No cereals or clothes are provided. Not even montessori education. But kind souls do come into the prison with powder, soap and clothes on and off.

The montessori is being run by a young Sarvodaya teacher. Her monthly allowance is paid by contributions collected from the Overseas Children's School (OCS).

Students of OCS, in commendable roles as Good Samaritans, also visit the prisoners regularly. They teach the children English, play with them and just chat to them to show them that someone cares.... that the world has not forgotten them.

What about the rest of us? Shouldn't state institutions and the judiciary find ways and means of expediting the hearing of cases, so that justice not only seems to be done, but is also done to these hapless women and their children.

The visit was arranged by Journalists for Children

What is the solution?

A majority of people would agree that children should not be separated from their mothers, even if they are in prison. Having the mother-child bond would also be a source of hope for women who have lost their freedom. Children would hold out hope.....something for these women captives to live for.

However, as Welikada Superintendent Weerasena Lokugalappathi agrees, mothers with children should be kept away from more hardened and streetwise women.

He concedes that overcrowding is a problem, but says: "A two-storey building will be constructed to ease this. A bigger sick bay is also being planned for expectant mothers and women with children so that they could be accommodated away from the other prisoners."

There is a water shortage, but plans are underway to build more water tanks and toilets, he says. Now there are only nine toilets for 395 women.

Mr. Lokugalappathi stressed the need for an ambulance to take sick prisoners, especially expectant mothers, to hospital.

It was impossible to fit a stretcher into the prison vehicles, as the seats were very close, he added.

The plan to separate women with children from the others would be a good thing.

The other possibility that could be explored would be to see whether, after the children reach the age of five, they could be absorbed into the extended family. Here again there is the danger of child abuse, in all its forms such as rape and incest. The children would have to be monitored closely by reliable NGOs in co-operation with the Department of Probation and Childcare.

Another could be the expeditious hearing of cases of women remandees who have children and the periodic review of their files to ensure that they don't languish in prison.

Finally, after conviction, their status could be reviewed and concessions granted, along with conditions, for good behaviour.

Then and only then would there be justice tempered with mercy.

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