Beyond the prisoner to the person within
A Fellowship that touches the lives of those behind bars
By Renu Warnasuriya
Prisoners come from all walks of life, but once in prison they are equally helpless. The Sri Lanka Prison Fellowship sees beyond the "prisoner" to the "person" within. It does not deny that prisoners must pay for their wrongs, but tries to help them bear their load. Established in 1985, the Fellowship has offices in various parts of the country including Kandy, Galle and Batticaloa. With only four on the permanent staff, the Fellowship consists mainly of volunteers.

"Not everyone can work with prisoners," says Mithra Karunanayake, Regional Coordinator. "To be a good volunteer, you must be able to hug a prisoner despite his unwashed smell or clean a wound on his body. Not everybody would be comfortable with this sort of contact,” Mithra says adding that there are many other aspects that need to be taken care of as well.

"The Fellowship has been working with us for a long time," says W.A.L Weerasinghe, Commissioner of Prisons, Welfare. "Those days we focused on custody and punishment but now we realise the importance of prisoner reforms.”

He said that this task could not be done without the help of outside organisations, as the authorities lacked funding, time and staff. He recalled an instance where the Fellowship solved the water problem at Mahara Prison, by installing a tube well.

Though essentially a Christian organisation, the Fellowship extends its services to any prisoner irrespective of his or her religion. “Religion is an important part of reforms as prisoners, like most of us, turn to religion in their hour of need," said Mr. Weerasinghe.

“Though no one is forced or pressurised into participating, many prisoners choose to join in religious activities. About 2,500 prisoners took part in a recent meditation programme," he said. However, he added that prison authorities are extremely careful about the groups that visit prisons.

“We do not allow any kind of forced conversions," said Mr. Weerasinghe adding that they only worked with organisations that were known and trusted. Awareness programmes on drugs, alcohol, homosexuality and other problem areas are an important part of the Fellowship's activities. At least twice a year, it tries to arrange meetings between the prisoners and their families. "Normally they are not allowed to come into contact with each other and have to talk through bars or some other kind of barrier," said Mithra.

"The prisoners keep their children on their laps and really enjoy the reunion. Caring for the families of prisoners is an important part of their work . We do many things to help their families," he said.

Once the breadwinner of the family, a prisoner leaves his family destitute, unable to support it. Families tend to fall into great financial difficulty, sometimes forcing the other partner to resort to desperate measures such as drug traficking and prostitution to find enough money to survive, said Mithra explaining that the Fellowship’s aim was to help them with other options.

The Fellowship also deals with children within the prison itself. When a pregnant woman is taken into prison, the baby is allowed to remain with the mother until it is old enough to leave. Even women with very young children are not usually separated until they come of age. With the hope of showing these children the correct path and making their lives happier, the organisation conducts various programmes such as concerts, fundraisers and medical camps.

Mr.Weerasinghe, too, stressed the importance of providing prisoners with an outlet. " If they do not express themselves in some way, their bottled up feelings come out in negative ways like violence. Therefore, art, music and other creative outlets are useful.”

Mr. Weerasinghe recalled an art exhibition they had organised with the Fellowship where the prisoners' paintings were displayed at the John de Silva hall. "They really enjoy this kind of thing," he said.

Getting out of prison can at times be harder than being in prison, as ex-prisoners are subjected to much discrimination. Many of them are not even accepted by their own families. As such, getting a job is almost impossible.

"It doesn't matter what qualification you may have. The only disqualification that matters is that you were in prison," said Mithra. Starting a halfway home is thus the Fellowship's number one priority. As the group is unable to house the released prisoners at the moment, it directs them to various rehabilitation centres and homes.

Aftercare is something ex-prisoners can count on for the rest of their lives. With the help of organisations like the Prison Fellowship many prisoners have been able to settle back into society.

Mr. Weerasinghe believes it is important to change the home environment. The preparation should start three months before a prisoner's release with family members being brought in for group sessions. Here again there are many problems such as transportation and food. The Fellowship does its part by helping with a cup of tea and some biscuits. Though their small donations do not solve problems of this magnitude completely, Mr Weerasinghe sees it as "lighting one lamp in a dark room”.

Back to Top  Back to Plus  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.