By Nirmala Kannangara – Photos by Lalith Perera
It is the festive season and as the whole of Sri Lanka gathers to celebrate this season of goodwill and cheer there still remains a group of people confined to their prison cells.With the bustle of the Christmas spirit and the rising cost of living, few have the time and the money to go and see their loved ones in prison.
The women’s ward at the Welikada prison was congested with remand and convicted prisoners. The wards and cells they were housed in were dark and damp. All their belongings were stacked all over which reminded me of the Pettah Manning Market.
Although they were serving jail terms they were all in a cheerful mood. They sleep on the floor, they sit on the floor to eat their meals and they sit on the floor to chat. The rough floor beneath their feet provides all the comfort they need irrespective of their jail terms. For them there are no more places for them to fall beyond the floor. According to their own words they are now in the lowest place where nobody would step in even for a few seconds in their worst nightmares. The Sunday Leader got the opportunity to speak to a few convicted and remand women prisoners to find out the reasons for their imprisonment and whether they regret their crimes.
Fathima Nazliya from Maligawatte, recounted and regretted killing her employer who was a beautician in Kelaniya and keeps asking herself ‘Why did I kill her? She has helped me, my child and my family so much? With all, this what happened to me that fateful day?’ ‘Never did I want to kill her but hit her on her head with the small gas cylinder and to escape from her,’ Nazliya told The Sunday Leader. ‘I had been working in their house for a couple of years and my boss and his wife whom I killed and their two daughters were very kind to me and treated me as one of their own family members. All this happened at a time I never expected,’ Nazliya said.
‘I was asked to go to the nearby boutique to put a re-load on madam’s phone. Since I forgot to take her phone number I went back to get it. Then I saw madam in the room with a man who had come a few minutes before. No sooner she saw me she pleaded with me not to tell her husband. That was how all this happened,” added Nazliya. Rathna is a mother of two from Ragama and was convicted for selling narcotics which she clams to have done in order to buy medicine for her ailing mother. ‘I was just sixteen when I met my husband and against the wishes of my mother who was the breadwinner of our family I married him. However my husband did every thing that he could to keep my children and me happy and comfortable. He did odd jobs to keep the hearth burning and on that fateful day in 1986 my husband died in the Pettah bus stand bomb blast.
My whole world collapsed and there was no other way to survive but to find a new way to look after my family. Together with some of my friends I started to rob goods from supermarkets and knowing that I was going in the wrong directon I bade farewell to that ‘profession’. By this time my mother was sick and I had to look after her as well. When I found it difficult to find a job I decided to sell ‘drugs’ to make a living. One day while I was selling drugs I got caught by the police and was sent to jail for 14 years,’ Rathna said.
She now regrets getting involved in illegal businesses. ‘After I was convicted my mother died due to grief. Now a relative of mine is looking after my children. Since I have been given a proper training in sewing in prison I will be able to sell ready made garments once I am freed and make a living,’ Rathna told The Sunday Leader.
Fathima is a pretty young girl who too was been convicted for selling drugs when she was five months pregnant. According to Fathima it was her mother who was involved in selling drugs and not her. But she was caught by the police when they raided her home in Maligawatta.
‘I was at home when the police came but my mother was not in. Since the police could recover the drugs from our house I was remanded. I gave birth to my child at the prison’s hospital,’ she claimed. Fathima’s one year old baby daughter has not only gained the affection of the other inmates but also the prison officers. Since she is still small she cannot understand why her mother is confined to a cell although she is running all over the prison premises.
Nallamma is a remand prisoner from Jaffna awaiting a pardon for a crime she claims to have never committed. ‘I was taken in for knowing a woman suicide bomber. All I can say is that this particular LTTE cadre had visited my office several times. Other than that I did not know her personally. Just because I had spoken to that woman who had come to my office I am behind bars now. There is no justice in the country. What is the reason for the law enforcement authorities to keep us in remand when we have not committed any crime,’ Nallamma asked.
Sixty year old Kamini who has been convicted for cheating money has lost every thing in her life after being imprisoned. She had studied at leading private school in Colombo. Kamini’s husband has filed for divorce and has also stopped her two children from visiting her. ‘I acted as a mediator to help some friends to purchase some houses from the National Housing Development Authority (NHDA). But however it was too late when I realized that I had been cheated by the agent. I was fined of Rs.3.5 million and my mother sold her house and paid the fine but I have continued to be in prison since 2002. My mother died of a heart attack after I was imprisoned. What is the justice they are talking of? Even after paying the fine I am still in prison, Kamini said.
Nilanthi has been lucky enough to continue to have the support of her husband and three children even though she is behind bars.“I ran a sub’job agency and my agent took Rs.5 million from my clients and left the country. Since it was I who had signed all the documents I had to take the responsibility and am now suffering. I have already served a ten year jail term and hope I will be released soon,’ Nilanthi said. She has received a good training in sewing and weaving in prison and hopes to be self employed someday.
The anguish of 72 years old Ukku Menike of Minipe is totally different. She is feeble and was in tears all the time. According to her, she and her youngest son were convicted for a murder they had not committed nor even contemplated. They had consulted a lawyer to defend and with great difficult raised the money for legal counsel. However at the last court hearing in June 2010, they had been advised by the lawyer to plead guilty. ‘Since we did not know much about law we had to listen to the lawyer.It was too late when we understood that our lawyer has taken money from the other party to get us convicted,” said Ukku Menike. Nayana too had got caught to the tricks of a friend who ran a job agency in Maharagama. ‘I was asked to run the agency in her absence and worked there happily for about three years. I introduced fifteen people to my friend who promised to send them to Germany. She took their money and left the country. Since it was I who has signed the documents I had to pay Rs.1.7 million failing or face jail time. I took care of my parents when they were sick and they are now no more and I am behind bars for a sin I have not committed,’ Nayana claimed.