Date: February 2012
Far from pleasant realities
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 undercooked 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.
It 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 accommodated 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”; statement by the 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.
Rehabilitation 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 separation. 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,” statement by 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.
I knew the justice system wasn’t working. I knew the prison didn’t make the prisoners better. I knew the I knew that that nobody wouldn’t give them a second chance.
Yet I chose the project. Introducing the concept of Open Prison system to Sri Lanka.
When I proposed the idea at the beginning of the Semester I knew it was going to be good. There was a cause behind it and there was a solution behind it. And there was a need. But an idea cannot just be introduced to a society completely unaware of it and except them to embrace it. Specially when it’s such a sensitive topic. There are many who will question heavily on the morals and the practicality of this “Idea” introduced to Sri Lanka. But the resistance was not the problem, the problem was that I was part of the resistance.
We all dream of a peaceful, perfect world, but at one point we have to take a good hard look at reality. People aren’t convicted and imprisoned for being good. They have crossed the justice set out in the country, willingly or un-willingly. So, before I went ahead with this project of producing a better solution and better life for Sri Lankan prisoners, I had to question myself.
What did I believe in? Have I not looked at the Forbidding Black gates of the Walikada prison with judgment and fear? Have I not wondered what they have done to be in there? Did I not believe that I deserved what they have?
I was not alone. These are the thoughts of Sri Lankans towards Prisoners, Prisons and Justice system. Every day we are fed acts violence, rape, injustice through the media. Therefore, it is not surprising to find that most of the population has such a strong fast need and belief to bring justice to those who has wronged.
That’s when I started my research. I started reading more papers, more articles, more theories and more interviews, not just in Sri Lanka but around the world. It wasn’t enough. I stood in line for four days to get an acceptance letter to visit the Walikada Prison, only maximum prison in Colombo. The experience I’ve gathered through this research journey is unexplainably sombre but yet enlightening. The more I knew, the more I came to figuring out the point that connects all the prisoners in the world, and what connects them to us.
They are Humans. Just like you and just like me.