- Time and again concerns have been raised with regard to the abysmal, dysfunctional, inhumane and corrupted prison administration
- Some of the officers who have been prosecuted have been released and reinstated. So much for accountability! That too has happened, not in times of war but of relative peace
No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. - Nelson Mandela
The kith and kin of the inmates of the Mahara prison are still gathering in front of the prison to know the fate that befell their incarcerated family members after the violence that took place on November 29, which left, reportedly and according to the official accounts, 11 inmates dead and more than a hundred injured. There is no independent or transparent estimate of the real numbers involved and as the families complain, the fate of those who are still inside are not known. Their request to have a word with or even a look at their loved ones has not been granted. There is a blanket of opaqueness covering the entire scenario with regard to the victims of the violence that happened at Mahara.
Sub human conditions
The Prison system in Sri Lanka is appalling! Almost all of the prisons are unsuitable to be occupied by human beings, prisoners or otherwise. Whether, it is the general conditions that prevail in the prisons or the treatment that the prisoners receive when they are incarcerated under court order in these ‘hell houses’, it is the same. Time and again concerns have been raised with regard to the abysmal, dysfunctional, inhumane and corrupted prison administration. Added to all that, prisons have become slaughter houses where life and limb of prisoners, both convicted and in remand custody are considered less than a tuppence worth.
The national study conducted by the Human Rights Commission on the prison system in Sri Lanka, the first ever of its kind, makes chilling reading. Sir Lankan prisons have a notorious reputation for violence, abuse of human rights, corruption, murder and immoral conduct among prisoners. Many a time the corrupt deals of the officers ranging from the prison guards to the highest authorities in charge of administration have been exposed. Other than piecemeal steps to patch up glaring shortcomings thus exposed, no comprehensive change has taken place. Despite negligible progress in terms of facilities such as new and better buildings, better food and opportunities for the kith and kin to visit those unfortunate men, the lot of the prisoner behind bars is as awful as it has been decades ago, if not worse.
Duty of the State
It is the duty of the state to ensure the protection, maintenance, and wellbeing of those who are in prison, which is under the custody of the state. Countries such as Sri Lanka struggle with the resources necessary to run such large scale prison establishments which are already overcrowded. Studies show that the resources that are allocated for the maintenance of our prison system is grossly inadequate and secondly widespread corruption results in even the provisions allocated not reaching the bottom in a manner that benefits the ordinary prisoner. A prisoner or a person in custody is deprived of his constitutional right of free movement and in a deeper sense, of being treated as a member of society. They are stripped of their right to engage in their livelihood, family life, and decent human activities, even the very basic human physical and sexual needs. They are frustrated and disappointed to the extent of being desperate. Needless to say that the situation in such conditions is volatile.
Every officer in authority who does not understand this is not suitable to be left in charge of prisoners. It was not long ago that it came to light that the former highest official in charge of the Negombo prison had engaged in the most corrupt practice of getting bribes from prisoners under his care to the tune of millions for special favours ranging from being able to get a cigarette to having especially made luxurious cells with all amenities for some of the inmates. None of these activities have come to light while the officer concerned was in charge of the prison and it was way after his retirement that these deeds were revealed.
History of violent abuse
Add to this the blood curdling violence perpetrated against these unfortunate human beings. True, they are either guilty of crimes or are accused of committing them. Some of those accusations could be grave and might turn out to be gruesome crimes. Yet it is the long arm of law that should punish the offenders. Not authorities who are a law unto themselves or who act as cats paws of politicians. For example the 2012 massacre of 27 prisoners at Welikada remains to this date an unsolved mystery. As to why the military had to use the type of force that they actually used, as the number of dead and casualties suggest, is not explained even today. Yet the culture of impunity that permeates the entire officialdom and the belief that anything done in uniform passes as ok, still continues.
Some of the officers who have been prosecuted have been released and reinstated. So much for accountability! That too has happened, not in times of war but of relative peace. As to the suspected, yet not officially recognised, individuals on whose behest such a slaughter took place, well, it is better left unsaid. The cries of bogus patriotism are so loud that the cry for justice for those who are murdered extra judicially, is subdued conveniently!
Culture of Impunity
Even with regard to the Mahara Prison incident, the official version holds little water. The official death toll which is 11, does not explain as to how such a large number of inmates had to be gunned down. Could it be the result of a stray bullet or two? Who ordered the shooting? Crime Scene Investigation in Sri Lanka is a one of a kind!
(Makandure Madush would have testified to that only if he was alive!) The bottom line is that not even a kindergarten child believes in the official version of the deaths of prisoners whose fate is decided while in custody.
The culture of impunity that freely exists in society finds itself in an unparalleled and heightened degree inside prisons. Some of the authorities including jailors treat prisoners abusively, violently and despicably. The HRC study indicates that jailors extort money from prisoners if they are to be kept safely. Even prison doctors are reported to be discriminating against certain types of inmates. Politically influential prisoners are a super breed!
The Sri Lankan prisons are notorious for the murder of prisoners while in custody of the State. In July 1983, Tamil prisoners were murdered at Welikada while the authorities looked away. In November 2012, 27 inmates were murdered in cold blood and none of the perpetrators have been punished. The incident that took place in Anuradhapura prison in March this year left two dead and half a dozen injured. Now, the Mahara incident.
Prisons need to operate as places of rehabilitation of offenders and not as torture chambers to inflict retributive punishment for wrongs done.
All prisoners are humans; we are reminded at the entrance to the Welikada Prison in big letters! But we wonder, whether they really are?