23rd January 2000

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Focus on Rights

Prison reforms in bureaucratic lock-up

By: Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

Periodically, Sri Lankans are compelled to witness some incident or another relating to our overcrowded, desperately grim prisons. A few years ago, it was the killing of a senior jailer of the Welikada Prisons, Upali Tennekoon, who was shot and killed while travelling in a private bus in Dematagoda.

At that time, speculation was intense as to the reasons behind his death, with some even attributing the killing to vengeful prisoners with powerful underworld connections.

Typically, in response to the public outcry, the Justice Ministry issued a cryptic statement, warning persons against rumour mongering and capitalising on the situation. The Ministry also, however, acknowledged a breakdown of discipline inside prisons, conceding that the use of narcotics as well as overcrowding may well be the reasons for the deterioration of discipline in Sri Lankan prisons. Authorities promised that effective steps would be taken to remedy the situation.

Now, we have a similarly alarming wake-up call in connection with the Kalutara prisons, where two prisoners died and thirty, including ten prison officials, injured in two-days of violence.

This time, the violence was sparked off by a group of LTTE suspects over prisoners being held in detention for as much as eight years within prison walls, many without even a hearing, as last week's Special Report in The Sunday Times revealed.

Overcrowding in our prisons was meanwhile highlighted to a truly amazing extent. Thus, the country's prisons having a total capacity to accommodate only 6000 prisoners, are at present, compelled to house 20,000 prisoners, while the number of prisoners are estimated to have risen by some 8,000 prisoners within the past eight months.

When confronted by these figures, the question one is forced to ask is very simple. What are the steps officials responsible for the prisons have taken to remedy the rapidly worsening situation, apart from engaging in cosmetic measures to "restore normalcy" and releasing reassuring statements that do not tackle the real issues involved?

If Ministry officials need some pointers in how they can go about these tasks, they should take a look into their own files and discover the existence of a very interesting 1997 report, authored by none other than a ministerial committee itself, appointed to look into prison welfare reform.

The report must be undoubtedly languishing in some bureaucrats' desk, consigned to the dismal fate that many of these reports seem to ultimately attract. Headed by a former Secretary to the Justice Ministry, Walter Ladduwahetty, the four- member committee authoring the report in question, comprised Prof. Dayasiri Fernando, Lalith Weeratunge, Swineetha Gunesekera and K.W.E. Karalliyadda.

Their analysis is very clear cut summing up of what is wrong with our prisons today. Inadequate prison staffing that impact on maintaining discipline, the increase in the pattern of crime and the unnecessary crowding of prisoners have been specified as some of the main problems affecting Sri Lankan prisons.

Some provocative questions are posed. Why is it, the report asks, that according to the 1993 Administrative Report of the Commissioner of Prisons, for example, the Department of Prisons had a total approved strength of 5371 personnel, with only 4028 places filled, leaving as many as 1343 vacancies? The report points out that even at the level of Superintendent of Prisons, there were two vacancies while three vacancies existed at the level of Assistant Superintendent of Prisons. As many as 55 vacancies were shown in the post of Jailers Class 1 and 11 while prison guards were shown to be short by 729 persons. The country has to know. Does this chronic situation continue at present and if so, why?

The report itself puts the question in issue very well when it remarks that "the reason for so many posts remaining unfilled is inexplicable.

Is it a lack of financial resources or problems relating to schemes of recruitment or lack of personnel to fill these vacancies?" However, statistics show that over the years, both capital and recurrent expenditure of the Department had gone up considerably.

"We assume therefore that it is not lack of finances that prevents these posts being filled," the committee notes. Then again, if problems in the scheme of recruitment lie behind these vacancies, the question is why cannot these be modified, particularly at a time when there are over 20,000 unemployed graduates at large?

All in all, it is a serious overhauling of present staffing procedures that the committee highlights as being very necessary if discipline is to be maintained, at least to some extent, in prison structures.

The report of the ministerial committee, meanwhile, looks at a number of other issues. The peculiar plight of remand prisoners is given special attention. Sri Lanka remains one of those specifically unfortunate countries, where the number of prisoners on remand exceed the number convicted.

In many cases, like in the Kalutara prisons, they are taken in under emergency laws and kept in preventive or investigative detention for irrationally long periods.

A large number of the ordinary prisoners on remand are however inside because they are too poor to furnish bail.

Statistics thus show that only some 25% of these remandees end up with a conviction.

Again, when one takes the convicted prisoners into account, an amazing 82.1% were those undergoing periods of imprisonment up to one year while of this number, a substantial 48.3% had served six months or less.

Even more distressingly, the report finds that as many as 79.5% of all convicted prisoners were in jail not for the offence that they had committed but in default of payment of the fine imposed on them.

Thus, one significant point made by the committee is the educating of judicial officers to impose alternatives to imprisonment such as ordering probation and community service orders.

In Sri Lanka, statistics have shown that offenders placed on probation have declined drastically through the years, in contrast to countries such as Britain, Japan, Singapore and Holland where probation has been considered appropriate for the short term prisoner instead of a jail sentence.

Again, community service orders have been used with great success in similar instances in those countries.

Here, though provision for this had been introduced as way back as in 1979, very few such orders are made by the courts due to lack of support staff and necessary infrastructure.

Importantly, the committee report goes on to specify that judicial officers ought to be adequately trained in the need to impose custodial sentences only when it is absolutely imperative.

Thus, no person ought to be sentenced to jail for less than three months, no sentence in default of a fine ought to be imposed until a non-custodial sentence has been proved to be ineffective and a court passing sentence of imprisonment ought to be required to state why no other sentence is appropriate.

Magistrates ought also to be held more accountable in issuing remand orders and should be strictly compelled to abide by their statutory duty to visit and inspect all prisons within their jurisdiction. It is, of course, a corollary of the above that with regard to persons taken in on suspicion of terrorist activities, expedition of their cases ought to be undertaken on a systematic level leading to indictments being filed or their release ordered.

As far as this ministerial report is concerned, it is, no doubt, excellent. The problem is, however, in its implementation. Since its recommendations were released some two and a half years ago, no significant progress is apparent in addressing any of the problem areas identified by the committee, though there are sporadic reports of aid being allocated to particular aspects of prison reform and sentencing procedures.

Obviously, systematic efforts are urgently needed to remedy the present dismal state of our prisons and the punishment meted out to individuals treated, in some cases rightly but in other cases, wrongly, as having offended societal rules of good conduct.

Until there is strong lobbying for this purpose, incidents like the Kalutara prisons killing recently and the complacency with which we now shrug these reports off, would only be a further indication of the barbarism which this society has now got accustomed to.

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