The condition of Sri Lanka’s prisons is somewhat dire. At any given time, between 25,000 to 30,000 people are in the system. These 25,000 are crammed into a space fit for 11,000. The resulting conditions are unsavoury, to say the least.
There have been no reforms in the existing system since 1844. The daily living conditions of prison inmates has been largely ignored.
Unfortunately, some prison inmates are guilty of any wrongdoing. Take, for instance, the youngest inmates- the children. It is not unheard of for female inmates to give birth in prison. Perhaps some female inmates have no relatives to care for their children. One way or another, these young children spend their childhoods in prison, through no fault of their own.
“It’s a horrible situation,” said Nilushi, a visitor to Welikada prison. She described how mothers, in a desperate bid to give their young infants space to crawl and play, had placed them just outside the bars of their cells. These children spend their time on a narrow, dirty strip of floor. Hardly a promising childhood. One might wonder what the future holds for these children, who have nowhere else to go.
However, there is hope. In the aftermath of the civil war, local authorities are finally beginning to focus on development issues. Prison Reforms and Rehabilitations Minister D E W Gunasekara revealed that long term plans for the expansion of Sri Lankan prisons are in the works.
Among the latest projects is a new prison for women and children in Kalutara. The prison was constructed in collaboration with the UNDP. This prison features more open space, so the young children have freedom to play. Projects are also in the works to move Bogambara prison inmates to larger premises in Palakelle. In the short term, Gunasekara is planning to install more kitchens and toilets.
Although the system is meant to be punitive, there is no excuse for the insanitary conditions prevailing in local prisons. However, it looks as if people are finally paying attention. The extensive planned reforms aim to ease congestion as well as improve living conditions overall. As the saying goes, “better late than never.”