14th December 1997


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When Yakadaya tried to break out

By J.N.N. Jordan

Revd Mathew Pieris was in the news recently having been paroled after nearly one and a half decades of incarceration. In the early sixties, in his capacity as Pastor in charge of the nearby St. Paul’s Church, Kynsey Road and armed with the necessary authority he used to visit prisoner Jinadasa alias Yakadaya with a view to bringing about some change and a more purposeful attitude to life on the part of this intractable individual.

This gives me the opportunity for the following narrative describing the attempt by Yakadaya to break out of prison.

The Magazine Prison, situated on low ground opposite Wesley College on Baseline Road (now Dr. Dannister de Silva Mawata) was proclaimed a prison in 1958 after the colonial era. Powder Magazine buildings had been reconstructed providing for adequate ventilation and security.

Jinadasa alias Yakadaya in 1961, was serving a commuted sentence of life imprisonment plus ten years rigorous imprisonment for the murder of the Maradankadawala Post Master and robbery with violence. A ‘bad hat’ not amenable to discipline, he had served several years with a long stint at Jaffna Prison where he was found to be heavily involved in trafficking in contraband and other prohibited articles, and acting virtually as a ‘tobacco baron’ in the prison.

From Jaffna Prison, Yakadaya was transferred to the special B cells of Welikada prison under punishment and kept under security check most of the time. The country was still simmering with communal strife after the 1958 violence following the refusal of the Tamil areas in the North to have the letter Shree in Sinhala on the number plates of cars and other vehicles.

After many weeks in Welikada prison, Yakadaya began to smart under the restrictions. His strategy for an escape plan, now took on a communal twist. He quickly won over the sympathies of the hundreds of cell prisoners in the adjoining blocks and led them to believe that he was being harassed by the Superintendent of the Prison who happened to be a Tamil gentleman, a most respected and honourable man and a renowned sportsman to boot. It came to light that Yakadaya was secretly undermining discipline amongst the majority Sinhala prisoners by arousing communal feelings, and orders were received to have him transferred to the adjacent Magazine Prison where he was to be segregated for sometime as a penal measure.

Jinadasa alias Yakadaya defeated the move by barricading himself within his cell with a solid wooden bed (given on medical grounds) and the hospital type wooden stand to keep his belongings. He prevented his cell door being unlocked and threatened to attack anyone entering his cell as he pretended he was armed with a weapon. For two or three days nothing could be done to remove the prisoner from the cell - even his food used to be pushed through the opening at the bottom of the cell door and the administration desisted from precipitating a ‘showdown’ by forcibly entering the cell. Everytime prison staff came to effect Yakadaya’s removal, the whole prison erupted with shouts of hundreds of the prisoners particularly with much disrespectful abuse of the head of the institution as being a “Kalla thoni”, the usual prison jargon for illicit immigrant.

His admission into the Magazine Prison cleared the formalities and Yakadaya was whisked away to his new location in the enclosed P Block section and into the reconstructed building containing six cells with iron grilled doors and double walls with the corridor running round. Wijeweera and three senior JVPers had their abode in this block. Here too he was kept under a special cells order made under statutory prison rule 221 by the Commissioner for a restricted period of three months, reviewed monthly for remission by the Commissioner on grounds of improved conduct.

It was the 9th of July 1961 and a little party was in progress in my official quarters not far from the prison on the occasion of the first Birthday anniversary of my last born, with the time reading around 6.30p.m when the telephone rang. “Sir, this is Jailor Samarasinghe. I just got a secret note from the prisoner in the cell next to that of Yakadaya that Yakadaya had induced him to join in escaping that night and the escape was to take place after the duty officers had been drugged with the tea provided at night.” A few days earlier a recidivist prisoner Stephen, had been punished by me for a serious infringement of prison discipline and one of five empty cells in Yakadaya’s P Block was used to carry out the punishment of fourteen days confinement in a punishment cell. This prisoner Stephen had been a one time domestic servant or aide in the household of Sir Nicholas Attygalle, University Vice Chancellor and had been undergoing a long sentence of eighteen years imprisonment after conviction in a string of cases for house breaking and theft. The night staff had searched Yakadaya’s cell and his person in the presence of the supervising Jailor Samarasinghe and entry had been made of correctness as to the handing over and taking charge by the day and night staff in the log book maintained on the spot.

So Jailor Samarasinghe continued that nothing incriminating to suggest escape was found in the cell when the prisoner had been locked up. However, punishment prisoner Stephen from the adjacent cell in his note secretly passed to the Jailor via the ventilation window grill at the back of his cell and into the inner corridor mentioning that Yakadaya was in possession of a phial of charmed oil which Yakadaya had assured him could open any cell lock in the prison and that the two of them could walk out of the Prison after drugging the night watch officers. Yakadaya had also told Stephen that all plans had been completed for the two of them to scale the wall and get away. Instructing Jailor Samarasinghe to summon the Chief Jailor and other Jailors to report to the Prison at once, I hastened to the prison to check on the situation personally. Accompanied by a few of the staff, I proceeded into the Section and getting into the corridor inside the P Block, I told Yakadaya that I had information that he was planning to escape and that I had come to make a personal search of his cell and person. My words triggered off a flurry of abuse and threats from the prisoner who said he would lay me low if I dared enter his cell. Without being unduly overawed, I told Yakadaya that I would search him at any cost, reminding him also that, like him who originally served a Barstool sentence of three years detention in the early fifties, I too had a spell there as a House Master and knew how to deal with violent types.

Yakadaya had quite a well proportioned body - actually few knew that this was the name given to him in the Barstool for outstanding prowess in digging trenches twice as fast as other inmates - and he seemed to keep one of his arms close to his body. Forcing the arm upwards, I found yet another little packet wrapped in cellophane or oil paper containing a small metal file about two or three inches long and a tiny phial of oil and also some whitish powder wrapped in paper. Obviously, the file was to help shape the key head and the whitish powder was to be introduced in the tea Yakadaya was to offer the night watch officer to drug him. It seems certain he had tried it out before whenever the warder felt sleepy. An intensive search of the building revealed that some of the galvanized iron water pipes leading to the high level cisterns in the toilet section in the building were missing.

After many years, Yakadaya, moving from prison to prison, finally ended up back in the Welikada Prison seemingly unable to walk or move his limbs. Months of treatment by the best Medical specialists in the General Hospital could not bring out any response of cure and Yakadaya thereafter was allowed a course of Ayurvedic treatment. Yakadaya lived in his prison cell as a cripple for years. When the time came for release in due course he walked away from the Prison!

I last met Yakadaya few years ago on a casual visit to the Negombo Prison where he was on remand. It was once more his usual prank and even as a remand prisoner he had to be carried before Courts as he was lying on his back and had to be cared for by prisoner attendants. His complaint was that the Police had assaulted and broken his legs and though granted bail there was no one to care for him if he got out of custody. That was the last I saw of him.

Yakadaya’s life depicted on the silver screen seems to have omitted this scene of the attempt to escape from custody. That is the producer’s loss.

The writer is a retired Deputy Commissioner of Prisons

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