A prisoner who has committed a crime as heinous as murder cannot be pardoned easily. Though the rights of prisoners are a much talked topic the world over, the plight of their families who have not committed any crime, is largely invisible. Their predicament is concealed from the world’s view. Activists point out that there is no effective framework to cater to their needs and as a result they have fallen into dire poverty, which in turn has resulted in extremely negative social consequences. In the light of this revelation Dailymirror.lk spoke to family members of prisoners, the relevant authorities, and members of welfare societies. The family members we spoke to, shared their heart wrenching tales of desperation of coping with social stigma, battling the economic burden and the emotional trauma that has followed the imprisonment.
Accordingly, ‘Dailymirror.lk’ learned that an imprisonment of a family member has led to such economic instability in the family, that in certain instances the women have no choice but to resort to prostitution. The case hearing drags on for years on end in courts until the verdict is delivered and the fee to hire a lawyer cripples the family’s economy. When the verdict is finally delivered and the accused family member is taken away, the family has nothing to live on. Adding to their misery, villagers and relatives stigmatize them. The education of their children is disrupted due to the mental distress caused by the change of events. Wives of prisoners told us that they were sexually harassed due to the absence of their husband.
The government claims that there is a welfare system in place under the Prison Department to address the needs of
Families of prisoners are eligible to Samurdhi benefits provided that their low financial status is proven. However, it is questionable as to whether the assistance provided is adequate to remove the family out of the mire of poverty and the detrimental consequences associated with it. Sources point out that these welfare mechanisms only provide meagre financial assistance which is insufficient to live on.
‘Dailymirror.lk’ spoke to family members of prisoners who are serving the death row, life sentence and those who have appealed against their conviction. According to the latest annual progress report released by the Ministry of Prison Reforms, as at August 31, 2016, there have been 447 prisoners serving their life sentence while another 98 have appealed against it. Three hundred and twenty seven prisoners have been sentenced to death while another 678 prisoners have appealed against it. A vast majority of these prisoners are males.
When my husband was around my son used to be the first in the class, but not any more
-K. Udayamawa from Gammaduwa
“There is no one to take care of us. I sew clothes for a living. My son is to sit for the scholarship exam this year. He has been deeply affected by my husband’s conviction. When my husband was around my son used to be the first in the class, but not any more.,” wept K. Udayamawa from Gammaduwa whose husband is imprisoned at the Pallekelle prison.
There is no one to take care of us. I sew clothes for a living. My son is to sit for the scholarship exam this year. He has been deeply affected by my husband’s conviction
“We don’t have a house and we stay at my mother’s. My brother doesn’t walk into this house because of our presence. We don’t know where else to stay. I live because of my children. I am 29 years old now. I can’t walk on the road. People leer at me,” she said. “It is better if we had been imprisoned alongside my husband.”
I have beaten four men so far in desperation as a last resort to save my life
-M.P. Rupakanthi from Kegalle
“I can’t walk on the road alone because men follow me knowing that my husband is in prison. They follow me to my house and I can no longer stay at home alone. I have beaten four men so far in desperation as a last resort to save my life,” said M.P. Rupakanthi from Kegalle. Her husband has been sentenced to death and though she has appealed against the conviction she is no longer hopeful. “I have appealed, but I can’t hire a lawyer with the meagre amount of money I get from making bricks,” she said.
The family tries to hide the truth from children and provide for them financially
-W.M.A. Wijesundara from Bandarawela
W.M.A. Wijesundara’s brother and two relatives have been sentenced to death and are imprisoned at the Bogambara prison. “My brother’s wife is 32 years old. She has three children and she is unemployed because she has to look after her kids who are very young. The family tries to hide the truth from the children and provide for them financially,” she said.
“We can visit him once a week. But due to economic difficulties we do not. The last time we visited him was on April 13,” she added while suppressing a sob.
Men trouble us. I’m very scared for my daughter’s safety
-Asoka Weerasooriya from Polonnaruwa
“We only cook one meal a day. I rarely visit my husband because I don’t have money to make the trip. Men trouble us. My daughter is only 14-years-old. I’m very scared for her safety. I sew clothes for a living.
We are very poor. When the case was heard at the High Court I had to pay Rs. 65,000 to the lawyer for one hearing for around 15 years. Now we have nothing as a result,” said Asoka Weerasooriya from Polonnaruwa.
People often reproach me calling my son a murderer
-Sitha Kumari from Kurunegala
“We are very poor. My husband is dead. My daughter’s son is a disabled soldier. People often reproach me calling my son a murderer,” said Sitha Kumari (58) from Kurunegala. Her 40-year-old son is currently serving a life sentence at the Bogambara prison for murder. “When my son was 16 years old he was forced by a contractor to get involved in the murder,” she added.
We are very poor. My husband is dead. My daughter’s son is a disabled soldier. People often reproach me calling my son a murderer When my son was 16 years old he was forced by a contractor to get involved in the murder
Men have asked me for my phone number many times
- Inoka Priyadarshani from Polonnaruwa
Inoka Priyadarshani’s husband has been sentenced to death for murder and he is currently imprisoned at the Bogambara prison. She said that she was being sexually harassed constantly wherever she went. “There are people trying to take undue advantage of me because my husband is in prison, away from home. I can’t tell anyone that my husband is not with me because I get harassed. Men have asked me for my phone number many times,” she said.
“I get Samurdhi benefits through which I was able to build a house. Villagers help me in buying books for my children. School does not take money from my children for anything,” she added.
There are people trying to take undue advantage of me because my husband is in prison, away from home. I can’t tell anyone that my husband is not with me because I get harassed
For a living Priyadarshani makes and sells packets of savoury bites.
Relatives don’t talk to us any more
-Ramani Padmalatha from Nelumdeniya
“I have a 21-year-old daughter who is studying at the Sabaragamuwa University. I make and sell rice packets as a living. I have to spend around Rs. 20,000 for my daughter’s studies and food,” said Ramani Padmalatha, whose husband is serving his term at the Welikada prison.
“Relatives don’t talk to us any more. We have been cut off from the family. But villagers have been supportive,” she added.
Despite economic difficulties I will educate my children
- Sureka Damayanthi from Polonnaruwa
Sureka Damayanthi from Polonnaruwa said that despite economic difficulties she aimed at educating her children.
“I sell food packets to a school as a living. We get Samurdhi benefits and occasionally we get funds,” she said. Her husband and brother have been convicted of murder in 2015.
The suspect may have committed an offence, but why should the innocent family and children suffer?
-Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa
Speaking to the ‘Daily Mirror’ former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa said that poor women of imprisoned husbands often became prostitutes to cope up with financial difficulties. Revealing the findings of an in-depth research on problems faced by prisoners, he narrated the story of a woman from a very rich family who married a man who was later arrested on suspicion of theft, burglary and robbery. “After marriage the woman’s family terminated all relationships with her. The couple settled and had two children. Thereafter the husband was arrested and now he is serving his term at the Welikada prison. The wife is desperate. There is no income to support the family. They have become very poor that she had to sell her body to live,” he said.
He added, “The children of these prisoners get involved in illicit activities and become drug addicts. There are no State obligations or State policies to look after them.”
The couple settled and had two children. Thereafter the husband was arrested and now he is serving his term at the Welikada prison. The wife is desperate. There is no income to support the family. They have become very poor that she had to sell her body to live
Emphasizing that there was no welfare system to address the problems of prisoners’ families he said, “Do we have any funds to support them? Most families of prisoners are vulnerable. The government does not look after them. The suspect may have committed an offence, but why should the innocent family and children suffer?”
He further pointed out that the family was not given due recognition by society. “Society does not treat them humanely. They are stigmatized. Then they develop a revengeful attitude towards society, and end up doing various anti-social things in the country.”
“No one has investigated into their problems. The government is not much interested. There is no line ministry to look after them. Why should innocent families suffer?” he quizzed.
Welfare is for victims. We should clearly clarify that families of prisoners are victims. There must be an amendment to the Ministry of Social Welfare or there should be a Department called the Ministry of Social Justice
He further reflected on a lecture he delivered on Women’s Day to an audience comprising 380 female prisoners. “The children of these women live with them in prisons. What about their future?”
Asked if the welfare of prisoners’ families should come under the Ministry of Social Empowerment and Welfare Dr. Mahanamahewa said that there was no regulation or law mandating it. “Welfare is for victims. We should clearly clarify that families of prisoners are victims. There must be an amendment to the Ministry of Social Welfare or there should be a Department called the Ministry of Social Justice, which is found in some countries to address the welfare of prisoners’ families,” he said. He pointed out that in developed countries like Australia there were no prisons. “There are correction centres instead. There is no capital punishment or rigorous punishment. What we need is to rehabilitate these prisoners,” he added.
There is a welfare system to address the problems of families of prisoners
Speaking to ‘dailymirror.lk’ the Minister of Social Empowerment and Welfare, S.B. Dissanyake said that there was a welfare system to address the problems of families of prisoners. “There are various types of welfare programmes conducted by the government. There is a programme under the Samurdhi movement to cater to the needs of those whose breadwinners have been jailed. There is a huge welfare organization under the Prison Department to help prisoners’ families around the country as well,” he said.
Prisoners’ Welfare Assoc. inquires and provides assistance through the GN in the area
-Thushara Upuldeniya Media Spokesman
The Prisons Media Spokesman, Thushara Upuldeniya said that there were two ways in which the welfare of families of prisoners was addressed. “The prisoner makes a request to us asking us to assist his family in educating his children etc. Then we inform the divisional secretariat in the area of this family and their needs,” he said.
He added that there was a Prisoners’ Welfare Association under the Prison Department. “When we inform the Association of any needy family, they inquire and provide assistance through the Grama Niladari in the area and through the school. The association provides school supplies annually. If a scholarship is needed they arrange for it. There have been 300 such monetary scholarships granted for this year,” he said.
Money given to prisoners’ family only for three months and not thereafter
“Families of five receive Rs. 800 for three months. If there are less than five members the family gets Rs. 500. This is given only for three months and not thereafter. Selected families get school supplies during the week dedicated for prisoners. It provides opportunities for self-employment as well,” said Senarath Udagedara, a member of the Bogambara Prisoners’ Welfare Association.
There are people who are imprisoned for six months unable to pay Rs. 1000 as fine
Senarath Ranasinghe, a member of the Dumbara Prisoners’ Welfare Association said that though the Association did much for the welfare of prisoners’ family, they could do more if the stringent process currently followed to provide assistance is relaxed.
“A family will be given Rs. 500 for three months which amounts to a total of Rs.1,500. A family member has to come to the prison each month to sign and get the money. If this person comes in a three-wheeler there is nothing left. In any case what can you do with Rs. 500 a month? You could make this into Rs.1,000 and pay the amount for three months (Rs. 3,000) at once, causing less hassle,” Ranasinghe, who is also a rehabilitation officer under the department of Prisons, said.
A family will be given Rs. 500 for three months which amounts to a total of Rs.1,500. A family member has to come to the prison each month to sign and get the money.
He further said that though the Association could assist prisoners who have been unable to pay minor fines, the paper work involved delayed the process. “This is time consuming. Hence it takes months to get the person released when he could have been released fast. There are people who are imprisoned for six months unable to pay Rs. 1,000 or one year unable to pay Rs. 5,000. There should be new rules and regulations with which you could get things done faster.”
Elaborating further on how the process could be quickened to get maximum benefit out of the assistance that can be provided, he said, “The process involved in handing an equipment or machine to assist in self-employment, for instance, takes months on end.