400 people squeezed into a space meant to accommodate a hundred- that’s the stark reality of Sri Lanka’s prisons. Overcrowding has long been the bane of the Prisons Department, which, being established in 1844, is also one of the country’s oldest. Yet despite the long-standing problem, it was never addressed. That is, until now. On Wednesday the Minister of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms, D E W Gunasekara, announced that radical reforms would take place within the department.
A senior prison official explained that the number of prisons was totally inadequate to accommodate the incarcerated.
“Since Independence, the Government has been focusing on constructing schools and temples. Having to construct more prisons is a reflection of real society,” said the official.
In short, the Government does not want to admit the ugly truth- that crime, particularly drug-related crime, is a continuing and very real problem. In fact, a recent spike of narcotic-related offences is a major contributor to overcrowding, the official commented.
The long term plan for the Department is to have a remand prison in every district. It was added that short term offenders will probably be shifted to ‘work camps’. Second and third time offenders would be shifted from Welikada to other areas.
Steps have already been taken to improve administration in the Welikada prison. Currently, those in remand are held in lock-up together with convicted offenders. The reason for this, the official said, was lack of space, especially as those in remand far exceeded convicted offenders. Arrangements will be made to separate the two groups, it was revealed.
Plans are also being drawn up for a new prison in Jaffna.
Apart from these measures, Gunasekara promised that toilet and ventilation facilities would be improved.
A 12 member panel of experts has been appointed, to suggest how best to go about the reforms. An interim report has already been compiled and the final report will be released to the Ministry soon.
All of which is very impressive. Yet how many of Gunasekara’s promises will be fulfilled? A look backward is far from reassuring.
To date, four different Commissions have released reports with suggestions for reform.
Not one of the suggestions was ever implemented.