A government watchdog in charge of monitoring conditions in French prisons has called conditions in some of them “inhuman.” France has the highest suicide inmate rate in Europe. The inspector general responsible for auditing French jails reported recently that he saw “a grave violation of fundamental rights” during an inspection tour.
Good news? By that, Kumbhakarna is referring to our national habit of congratulating ourselves on our appalling institutions simply by comparison with conditions elsewhere, starting with India and moving onto the West.
Well, anyone reacting to the above as good news should visit one of our prisons. Kumbhakarna once visited Welikada prison and saw conditions there for himself. He came out convinced to stay out of two Sri Lankan institutions at any cost – the parliament, and prison, because both have moral degradation in common. While physical conditions in parliament do not compare with what you get in prisons, Kumbhakarna would find it abhorrent to sit together with people who only care about adding bacon and golden syrup to their breakfast menu without giving a damn about the state of our hospitals, schools, prisons or public transport (all these institutions have much more in common than those who have led sheltered lives would like to believe).
Interestingly, two contemporary politicians, one an incumbent, high-profile minister, and the other an ex-army commander and ex-MP, have served lengthy spells in prison. One is Education Minister S. B. Dissanayake, and the other is Gen. Sarath Fonseka. But neither has said a word about what life in prison is really like. True, they were ‘privileged’ prisoners who were treated deferentially by jailors and fellow inmates (no jailor would have dared swear at them or kick them, the usual fate of any ‘common criminal’, and may have eaten better than the average inmate, but they too, had to share the same awful toilets and prison facilities much of the time. They’d have witnessed how cruelly and shabbily less privileged prisoners are treated by their keepers. Why are they so silent about it now? And it is not just these two. Actor politician Wijeya Kumaratunge was incarcerated once. So was former minister Mahinda Wijesekara. To this list can be added a number of our intellectuals – former JVP members who are now writers, journalists and bureaucrats. Only one of them, as far as one can recall, has made an impassioned plea for a profound change in the way prisoners are treated – and that is columnist Nuwan Udaya Wickremasinghe. The other is columnist and translator Gamini Viyangoda, but he has never been in jail.
Recently, Death Row inmates at the Bogambara prison began a protest. Their demand: carry out the death penalty without prolonging their agony. Outsiders would find this hard to understand. A day spent inside Death Row prison cells would clarify the confusion immediately. Actually, common sense should tell us that these prisoners were demanding better living conditions, including decent food and health care, and not voicing a death wish. If a poll were held today regarding the death penalty, the majority of Sri Lankans would undoubtedly be in favour (in practice, not theory) while rest assured that most Death Row inmates would be against it. Whatever crimes these people have committed, they have the right to humane treatment since their actual fate is life imprisonment rather than execution.
Getting back to French prisons, conditions are still better than what you get here. The complaints were about cockroaches and mice in prison kitches and cells, unsafe electrical fittings and leaking toilets, etc. There were no reports that any prisoners were murdered with official blessing, as it happened in Welikada prison recently. French prisons provide sports and library facilities, while ours have these only in skeletal form. Recently, the Business Insider said that French prisons were as bad as those in Moldova.
The question is not if French prisons (and those in Moldova or elsewhere) are better or worse than ours. Rather, it is whether we see our jailed citizens as human. The biggest difference lies in attitudes, not in buildings and facilities.
Favouritism pervades our prison system. Those who have money to spend can buy better treatment (as well as items listed as illegal). Money alone will not guarantee survival, however, as the wife of one inmate who was killed in the pre-dawn shootings inside the prison in November found out. She runs a clothes shop in Maharagama and she told the press after her husband’s death how prison officers ‘raided’ her shop during festival times and helped themselves without paying for anything. Other women have gone so far as to bestow sexual favours to jailors to ensure better treatment to their jailed spouses.
In the end, comparisons with other systems is pointless, because it’s up to us to improve what we have. A French citizen may find any French prison degrading compared to life outside. One striking difference, however, is this. A prison official himself pointed out the appalling conditions during an inspection tour, and went so far as to report it. The story was widely publicised in the international press. In Sri Lanka, such attitudes are not forthcoming either from officials or the media. People, once they go to jail, are seen as subhuman. While prisoners may be ill-treated in French prisons, armed paramilitaries would never dare execute inmates in the aftermath of a riot, as it happened recently in Sri Lanka. The ensuing scandal could bring down the government, and the minister of justice would have to resign at the very minimum. That is the real difference. As Fyodor Dosotoevsky, who experienced the horrors of a Russian prison, said: A country is only as civilised as its prisons.