7th December 1997


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Avro 748 at Palaly airport, August 1978
A foundation in the sky


Drugs and despair behind bars

A senior jailor of the Welikada Prisons Upali Tennekoon was shot and killed while travelling in a private bus at Dematagoda late last month. The killing which is currently under investigation has led to an intense debate about the state of our prison system, many problems of which have been highlighted by a committee appointed by the Ministry of Justice to look into present legal provisions and administrative practices relating to the welfare of convicted and unconvicted prisoners. The Sunday Times brings to its readers a commentary on the report that was released recently, as well as interviews with prison officials, in an attempt to draw attention to the many ills that inflict Sri Lankan prisons, and to emphasize that ignoring such clear signs of crisis would be both shortsighted and dangerous in the extreme.

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardana

Welikada PrisonsA few months back, visiting the Welikada prisons, I happened to enter into a long conversation with one of its senior officials. Grizzled in years, this gentleman was evidently one of the last flag bearers of old days where the cutting edge of societal violence was much less sharp, and the line between right and wrong much clearer. His final denunciation of the dark miniworld under his supervision came in a bitter outburst.

"We cannot cope with all this. We have too few trained men. Our prisons are spiralling out of control."

Words, what do they matter after all? For years, we have been hearing this, that the prisons of this country are ill equipped, understaffed and woefully corrupt. Our numbed consciences only respond to some dramatic event, like violent death or riots inside prison walls. Periodically, we are not disappointed, the latest manifestation of this being the killing of a senior jailor of the Welikada prisons, Upali Tennekoon. Amidst accusations that he was done away with by vengeful prisoners with powerful underworld connections, his colleagues have now started to agitate for the reintroduction of the death penalty in an argument that this might stem the rising rate of crime.

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry in a cryptic message has warned persons against circulating unnecessary rumours about the killing. The Ministry has gone on to acknowledge a breakdown of discipline inside the prisons and conceded that the use of narcotics and the overcrowding of the prisons might be reasons for this.

Behind this short sentence lies of course a story. And the story is vividly and horrifyingly illustrated in data released recently by a ministerial committee appointed to look into prison welfare reform. Headed by a former Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, Walter Laduwahetty, the committee comprising Prof. Dayasiri Fernando, Lalith Weeratunge, Swineetha Gunesekera and K.W.E. Karalliyadda have warned of an alarming state of affairs inside our prisons.

"One notes almost a sense of despair," states the report in the context of inadequate staffing. It is pointed out that according to the 1993 Administration Report of the Commissioner of Prisons, the Department had a total approved strength of 5371, with only 4028 places filled, leaving as many as 1343 vacancies. Even at the level of Superintendant of Prisons, there were two vacancies while three vacancies existed at the level of Assistant Superintendant of Prisons. Meanwhile, as many as 55 vacancies were shown in the post of Jailors Class I & II and 185 in the post of Prison overseers while prison guards were shown to be short by 729 persons. Little wonder then that there is rampant indiscipline in the prisons, and that narcotics smuggling and even more nefarious activities are condoned by prison officials

"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?" the committee questions. Dealing with the argument that financial constraints could be the problem, the committee points out that over the years, both Capital and Recurrent expenditure of the Department has gone up considerably.

"We assume therefore that it is not the lack of finances that prevents these posts being filled," it remarks.

Then again, if problems in the scheme of recruitment is the reason, it is asked whether these could not be modified, particularly at a time where there are over 20,000 unemployed graduates. The committee goes on to add that whatever may be the reason, the total effect is that the Department of Prisons appears to be receiving stepmotherly treatment by the State.

This process of deterioration in the Sri Lankan prisons system has many more facets to it. In a crisp overview, the committee is very clear about the context within which prison reform is currently being looked at.

"While the population of the country has increased considerably over the past century to the present over 17 million, the pattern of crime has itself undergone a radical change, particularly after the insurgency of 1971. Gun culture is very much a part of the crime scene today. The increased criminalisation of our society is reaching dangerous proportions. The disappearances of persons in the recent past, the ongoing war in the North, the availability of sophisticated weapons of destruction, gang warfare are some of the features of today's crime scene," it explains.

It is stressed that the Prisons Department appears to be unable to cope with the problem which is aggravated by the fact that a large majority of the prisoners should not, in actual fact, be inside the prisons at all. The peculiar plight of remand prisoners is given special note. It is commented that Sri Lanka must be one of the very few countries in the world where the number of prisoners on remand exceeds the number convicted. Most of the remand prisoners are those too poor to furnish bail. Statistics are to the effect that only some 25% of the remandees end up with a conviction, horror stories of innocent persons languishing ten years or more in prison for a crime that they have never committed are all too common.

Remandees are, of course, not the only prisoners whose fate could be improved. According to prison statistics (1994), a staggering 82.1% of convicted prisoners were those undergoing periods of imprisonment up to one year while of these 48.3% served six months or less. The bulk of these were below 30 years of age and a vast majority of them had not passed the O/Level examination. 55.1% of them had no previous convictions. What is even more distressing is that as many as 79.5% of all convicted prisoners in 1994 were in jail not for the offence that they had committed but in default of payment of the fine imposed on them. This is where the court convicting them did not impose a jail sentence on the offenders as punishment, but thought that a fine was adequate. It was the non–payment of these fines, due to poverty that had resulted in the incarceration of these persons, accused in the main of excise or drug related offences.

One important point made by the committee is that inquiry ought to be made to examine why alternatives to imprisonment such as probation and the making of community service orders are not popular sentencing options with courts. In Sri Lanka, statistics show that offenders placed on probation have drastically decreased 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 many countries, but though provision for this was introduced as way back as 1979, very few such orders were made by the courts, due to lack of support staff and the neccasary infrastructure. The Commissioner of Prisons has recommended the streamlining of this scheme, pointing out that large numbers of those sentenced to prison for non payment of fines could have been placed on community service orders.

The Committee goes on to suggest that judicial officers should be cautioned that no person ought to be sentenced to jail for a period less than three months, that no sentence in default of a fine ought to be imposed until a non-custodial sentence has been found to be ineffective, and that a court passing sentence of imprisonment ought to state its reasons why no other sentence is appropriate. It is emphasized that judicial officers ought to be thoroughly familiar with the sentencing options available to them.

Further strictures are placed on judicial officers. The committee quotes extensively from a study done by the Centre for Human Rights (CSHR) of the University of Colombo which has pointed out that 22% of remand prisoners were not informed of the charges against them and that 'Magistrates have issued remand orders without even ascertaining whether the remandees knew why they were arrested and were remanded.'

The study has concluded that "the tardiness with which Magistrates and High Court judges use their discretionary powers, coupled with the attitude of the police who are hell bent on keeping the suspects as long as possible on remand have rendered untold injustice." The new Bail Act passed recently is expected to expedite bail, though whether this would actually lessen the problem remains to be seen.

The committee meanwhile emphasizes that Magistrates should be compelled to abide by provisions of the Release of Remandees Act of 1993, including the obligation that they visit prisons within their jurisdiction.The CSHR study has stated that 9 out of the 10 Magistrates surveyed, had admitted that they do not conduct the mandated visits due to a heavy work load.

Clearly, a thorough overhauling of the entire system has to be done if any improvement is to be made. Adding to the woes of the Sri Lankan prison system is the fact that a number of prison institutions have been closed for various reasons, such as the rehabilitation of persons suspected of being LTTErs. No structures have been set up in place, other than the Kalutara prison, catering to about 275 remand prisoners. As a result, some prisons are overcrowded to the catastrophic extent of over 400%.

Behind the reasoned language of the committee lies a sense of desperation, and the all too clear warning that things could get to be much worse if immediate remedial measures are not taken. The civilized world has long since departed from the notion that the main aim of sending offenders to prison is for punishment alone. Rehabilitative aspects of detention are important for in the end, even "an offender for life" is sent out into society at some stage. That this should be given greater attention and greater resources is more important at this time than at any other, where breakdown of established civil structures could cost us more than the eventual limping back to normality after armed conflict.

Far from pleasant realities

By Farah Mihlar

4.15 pm. Welikada Prison.-Prisoners, in hundreds, clad in white shorts and sleeveless shirts line up leaving their workshops to prepare for the night. Some smile and chat among themselves while others sit grim faced by the side of a building, plates in their hands awaiting their dinner-a massive tray of big grained white rice, boiled chunks of meat that appeared to be uncooked and three containers of gravy. One prisoner throws his food into a nearby drain and tosses his plate away in disgust.

The food is repulsive.

Meat being sorted for cooking in the prisonIt is like walking into a mini village. Behind the buzz of activity, the reality is not pleasant. Overcrowding is bad with about six prisoners being accomodated in a space the size of your average home toilet.

Correspondingly, facilities are also divided, the budget allocation for 6000 prisoners has to be divided by 10,000. Water supply, drainage, recreation facilities and food are all in short supply.

"The overcrowding of prisons is the biggest problem that we face," says Commissioner General of Prisons, K.W.E.Karaliyadda

A common shower meant to be used by about 8 people is today used by 20 persons. The prisoners jostle each other as they make use of the water, and squabble over the soap.According to former Prisons Chief H.G. Dharmadasa, drainage blockages and water shortages are common problems because of overcrowding.

One nightmare for prison officials is the danger of an epidemic breaking out among the prisoners.

"We panic when a few prisoners get sick because it can spread to intolerable levels," says Mr Dharmadasa.

Prisons Commissioner P.A. Herbert clarifies that nothing like this has yet happened, but fears have again arisen with the recent cholera scare.Medical facilities are limited, and almost all the prisoners are afflicted with skin diseases.A foreign national behind bars says that "Firstly, the food is bad, secondly there is no doctor and thirdly, the place is filthy." The local prisoners complain less, lack of space appearing to be their main problem.

Rehabiliation work is carried out among convicted prisoners only. The Welikada prison like other prisons, offers carpentry, tailoring, manufacture of coir products and prison requirements such as soap.There are also hobby groups and prisoners make use of their creative talents through painting and sculpture. Recreation facilities are poor however, and visiting time is divided between large numbers of prisoners which results in each prisoner having to spend less than 5 minutes with each visitor.

Due to the overcrowding, remand prisoners are kept with the convicted prisoners though prison laws strictly specify seperation. Both are easily identifiable due to the fact that convicted prisoners are clad in white while remandees are allowed to wear normal clothing. Those who cannot pay bail or end up in prison for small acts of theft are compelled to share their room with convicted murderers. Convicted prisoners thus benefit from luxuries given to remandees while remandees learn the finer details of crime.

Homosexuality is common.What is alarming is that youngsters are forced to engage in homosexuality by older men.

"We do our best to separate the two age groups for this reason," says Mr. Herbert.

Drug addiction is the other prevalent problem inside the prison. Almost 60% of those convicted are for drug related offences. The jail guards themselves admit that almost every other prisoner is on drugs. Access to drugs is easy, it is often buried in food parcels or smuggled in by visitors. The authorities appear to be unable to cope with the problem due to severe understaffing, currently amounting to 600 unfilled vacancies. The prison buildings are old and in constant need of repair, jail breaking is therefore a real threat.

The law is not given much respect behind prison walls for more reasons than one

"Half of us are here for having been found with small quantities of drugs on us. The big drug lords are travelling in the city in their luxury vehicles. Is this justice ?" asks one prisoner.

It is urged that other legal options ought to be made use of, rather than imprisonment. Judges ought to be made more aware of this fact, says a former Prisons Commissioner C.T.Jansz. The state can, in fact, save millions, if this is encouraged. At present, an average of Rs 100-200 is spent each day on each prisoner.

"A person who steals five coconuts in the village is kept in prison at a far greater cost than his theft," remarks Mr Herbert.

So much for the men.The women are worse off, looking after their children in true 'hell-hole' conditions. Young and old, prostitutes,vagrants and terrorists are all put together with predictable results.

Other sentencing options should be specially applicable to women, stress prison officials. Counselling for women and children inside prisons is nonexistent.

Leaving the Welikada prisons, one is gripped by a sense of hopelessness at the immensity of the problems.

It is to be hoped that at least this time, where the government has reportedly allocated Rs 60 million to upgrade the prison system, and Rs 350 million to build a new prison complex in place of the old Bogambara prisons that was acquired by the state, something constructive would be accomplished.

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