the prisoner to the person within
A Fellowship that touches the lives of those behind
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,"
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.
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.
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.”
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,"
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
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.
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.
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”.