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New lives?


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Prisoners in Sri Lanka could be on the verge of getting a new lease of life. Cabinet this week approved a special taskforce report indentifying ways to reduce prison overcrowding, paving the way for it to be presented in Parliament. This could create room for much-needed reform and greater focus on rehabilitation in the local prison system.   

On 30 August, Cabinet appointed a taskforce on legal and judicial causes for prisons overcrowding and prison reform to evaluate the effect of relevant existing laws and make recommendations identifying avenues that would enable the efficient use of existing provisions of the law to reduce overcrowding.

The taskforce was also asked to provide necessary guidance to reform the prison system in Sri Lanka to adhere to international and national human rights obligations as well as to meet the United Nations Minimum International Standards for Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules).

The recommendations include: use of community-based corrections instead of imposing imprisonment; the full implementation of the provisions in the Criminal Procedure Code (Amendment) Act No. 4 of 1995 enabling payments of fines in instalments instead of arresting those who do not pay; until prosecutions are made in High Courts regarding cases which the Magistrate’s Court has no jurisdiction to continue with such cases in Magistrate’s Court and implementation of a Management Information System for preventing misplacement of files; release persons retained without prosecuting on a bond and magistrate’s visit to prisons once a month according to provisions of the act; utilising police bailing method according to provisions in Bail Act No. 30 of 1997, considering the ability of reducing death penalty to life imprisonment; construction and relocation of prisons and creating a suitable and secure environment for detainees and prison staff.

Statistics last year showed that there were 8,246 remand prisoners in Sri Lanka awaiting conviction or release. The ratio between remand prisoners and those convicted is 3:1. In 2015, numbers showed that most of those incarcerated, as much as 46%, were drug offenders, though it is not classified as a crime while 5% were arrested for being drunk in public places.

Post-release employment is another way to make a big difference. An unemployed ex-offender is three times more likely to recidivate than one who has secured steady employment. Currently, the Sri Lankan prisons department is appealing to the Government to allocate a quota system to allow former offenders to be employed in public sector jobs. However, other countries such as the US are encouraging companies to absorb rehabilitated prisoners under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit Program, which allows small businesses to be eligible for tax deductions for hiring formerly convicted employees.

Sri Lanka already has a similar system that has employed former prisoners in the past. The Prevention of Crimes Ordinance allows prisoners to be granted work release from jail and this could be used to provide selected prisoners undergoing rehabilitation an opportunity to work for a company under the supervision and responsibility of the Prisons Department.

A prisoner who fails to keep to the terms of the agreement can be penalised under s.12 of the ordinance. In 2014, some 500 prisoners were given work release outside prison, a decline from 2011 when 20,034 inmates were released under the same program. Clearly this system is far more effective than releasing offenders who find they have to return to a life of crime in order to survive. 

Employment given in this manner can also reduce the stigma faced by prisoners who genuinely wish to reform. Such efforts, if implemented, can actually provide a sustainable solution to Sri Lanka’s overcrowded and under-resourced rehabilitation system.


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