In the wake of an increasing number of prison inmates contracting COVID-19 -- some 1,091 as of yesterday -- was the news of a riot that broke out at the Mahara Prison and the attempts by armed prison guards to quell the riots had left 11 inmates dead and 109, including two prison guards, injured. Situated 15km north of Colombo, the prison is said to be overcrowded like most other prisons in Sri Lanka with insufficient facilities to cater to the basic needs of the inmates. Some of the reasons believed to have triggered the riots appear to have been the fear and frustration among inmates that being held in close proximity to each other will provide an easy target for COVID-19 and their repeated requests that they be subjected to PCR tests being ignored.
The Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) has told Daily Mirror the crisis which erupted in the Mahara Prison complex should be described as a massacre where the number killed were more than what had been disclosed for public consumption.
CPRP President, Attorney Senaka Perera said it was an unfortunate incident that occurred after inmates complained to prison officials that it was unfair to detain COVID-19 infected inmates inside the prison as it would result in the infection easily spreading to other prisoners. He said the protest turned into a riot when prison guards opened fire to counter the agitation.
At a time when the government blames the people for not maintaining health guidelines such as physical distancing, washing of hands and avoidance of public gatherings; whom should we hold responsible when the often touted health guidelines are blatantly violated and in this instance by the prison authorities. Whether it happens in parliament, at public places or in prisons, it goes without saying that the law should be applied across the board in a consistent manner without fear or favour. Otherwise none could be blamed if guidelines issued by the government or the health authorities were not taken seriously.
At this juncture we thought it important to mention a quote by Melville Fuller, a former US Supreme Court Chief Justice, who said: “When those to whom we entrust public safety abdicate their role of public protector, the system has failed at its most fundamental level.” It highlights the fact that safeguarding the dignity and rights of those held in government custody, whether in prisons or other detention centres, is the responsibility of those entrusted to do so, though sadly this responsibility appears to be observed more in the breach than otherwise.
Incidentally when passing the Welikada Prison complex, there is for all to see the words, ‘Prisoners are also human beings’ written across the wall in all three languages, more akin to a plea to those outside, seeking their empathy and compassion. Let us consider prisoners as fellow human beings, now paying for their sins having fallen into a mess and muddle by choice or compulsion.
Meanwhile, Colombo’s Mayor Rosy Senanayake has underscored the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic especially in areas within the Colombo Municipal Council limits. She said the situation was worsening by the day and taking a ‘dangerous’ turn when out of some 990 PCR tests conducted daily about 250 turn out to be positive.
In an alarming addition to what Mayor Rosy Senanayake said, the members of the Public Health Inspectors (PHIS) Union warned that the pandemic had reached ‘uncontrollable levels’ within the CMC limits considering the increasing number of infected patients and COVID-19 related deaths.
Be that as it may, Prof. Tissa Vitarana, a Virologist turned government parliamentarian, said the spread of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka was no longer confined to clusters when taking into account the number of infected patients found in the community and the viral infection needs to be curbed as soon as possible before the pandemic gets out of hand.
We conclude by drawing attention to an eye-opening article written by Dr. Ravi P. Rannan-Eliya, Executive Director of the Institute for Health Policy and published in the Daily Mirror, where he says we would not be able to prevent new outbreaks unless we understand why we were unable to stop the one currently spreading across the country.
He said though emphatic declarations were being made about zero risks of new COVID-19 clusters—just as earlier where it was declared that we had defeated the virus—he saw no evidence that the errors that allowed the current outbreaks to happen had been rectified.