“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones,” - Nelson Mandela
When a suspect is taken into custody by a law enforcement officer or a law enforcement agency, the suspect’s safety and security are guaranteed under the law of the country. But often, this is not the case. We have come across several reports of suspects in custody being unmercifully beaten with some even losing their lives. The resultant backlash by the suspect’s relatives and the villagers has compelled the authorities to transfer or interdict the police personnel allegedly involved in the attack till the investigations are over. Often, in the course of time, the matter is forgotten or swept under the carpet and we are back to square one with little or no action known to be taken.
The latest case in point was the brutal attack unleashed on the remand inmates on November 22 last year at the Angunakolapelessa Prison, which has been described by the authorities as a ‘super prison’ built at an estimated cost of Rs.4,996 million on a land extent of 56 acres. The Committee to Protect Prisoners’ Rights told a news conference that trouble began when the prison authorities had mercilessly beaten up a group of prisoners, who launched a protest against the conduct of the Prison Superintendent and the constant searches carried out by STF personnel, whom the protesters claimed even strip-searched their relatives who visited them.
The committee released several video clips from CCTV camera footage showing the prison authorities and the police attacking the prisoners who were on their knees with their hands raised over their heads.
It was to prevent such appalling incidents that the UN General Assembly adopted its landmark resolution 70/75 titled, “United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules) on December 17, 2015 to honour the legacy of former South African President Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prisons in the course of his struggle for democracy and the promotion of a culture of peace and justice.
The General Assembly also decided to extend the scope of International Nelson Mandela Day (July 18) to be also utilized to promote humane prison conditions of imprisonment, to raise awareness about prisoners being a continuous part of society and to value the work of prison staff as a social service of particular importance.
Meanwhile, Prisons Reforms and Justice Minister Thalatha Athukorale told a news conference recently that two committees had been appointed to inquire into the assault on the prison inmates. She claimed this to be a one-off incident and that the CCTV cameras would have alerted the authorities in case such incidents had taken place on earlier occasions. Ironically, the minister also said she hoped the investigations would reveal who had leaked the video footage and that the person involved would be punished. She must be reminded that what is important is not to ‘shoot the messenger’ as it were but to carry out a proper and impartial inquiry on what was revealed and punish the guilty whoever they may be.
Against this background,officials of Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) said they had visited the Prisons Complex to inquire into the attack on the inmates about a month before social media websites carried the leaked video footage causing a public outcry and uproar.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the prison staff and the police personnel are doing a difficult and thankless job, which needs them to be constantly alert, patient and understanding when handling their charges, who too may be suffering from trauma, tension and depression by the very nature of their incarceration.
Having said this, we highlight the urgent need for a cadre of well-trained prison staff who will maintain their equilibrium or equanimity even under sudden provocation or in stress situations and treat the inmates in a humane manner, because, after all, they too are human beings.