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Bars on humanity


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The latest protest by female detainees at Welikada Prison resulted in eight jailors getting injured and 52 prisoners being transferred to other jails on Monday as the situation remained tense. The standoff between the Justice Ministry and prisoners shows how deeply important prison reforms have become in Sri Lanka and why correctional facilities and rehabilitation as a whole deserve a broader discourse that goes beyond just the death penalty. 

According to the ministry, the protests were generated by troublemakers within the prison linked to the drug trade but the prisoners have voiced other issues including long delays in their cases, lack of basic facilities and mistreatment. A video of female inmates pleading for help from bystanders while they were being transferred by bus to a different jail was shared on Facebook with witnesses saying the guards were hitting the women to control them. The whole situation has become deeply disturbing and greater transparency needs to be provided, especially given the terrible state of prisons.    

Sri Lanka’s prisons are notorious for being congested, poorly supplied and badly funded. United Nations Special Rapporteur Juan E. Mendez, during an observation visit to Sri Lanka in 2016, criticised the prison system as being characterised by very deficient infrastructure and pronounced overcrowding. As a result, there is an acute lack of adequate sleeping accommodation, extreme heat and insufficient ventilation. Overpopulation also results in limited access to medical treatment, recreational activities or educational opportunities. Mendez insisted that these conditions combined resulted in a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of people. 

One of the issues highlighted by the women was that due to renewed restrictions by the ministry they were not even allowed food from outside. Given the dire situation within prisons even something as basic to outsiders as home food would become a significant point of contention.  

Congested prisons are a direct result of lengthy sentences for non-violent and drug-related offences. Suspects are subjected to lengthy remand periods with many being detained for years and some even up to 15 years. He urged Sri Lanka to consider measures to make more non-violent offences bailable and to experiment with alternatives to incarceration. The absence of a formal complaint mechanism available to inmates was also pointed out by him as a serious issue in introducing accountability and transparency within the prison system. 

The UN representative also recommended that each prison install a bank of phones so that prisoners had a way to communicate with their families, especially if they lived far away. This would also reduce the demand for mobile phones that are routinely smuggled into prisons.  

One of the key points that was presented as justification for the return of the death penalty was that convicted drug smugglers were directing operations from within prisons. However, this is largely due to a corrupt and inefficient system that had many failures and oversights. Sri Lanka’s focus on punitive rather than restorative justice, coupled with a sluggish legal system that takes years to hear cases, outdated laws and an underfunded prison system make dealing with crime extremely challenging. 

Allegations of jailors or prison administrators supporting illegal activities have cropped up sporadically for years with the Welikada instance being the latest example. But if there are questions over jailors’ professionalism they have to be investigated and action taken rather than simply transferring them or reintroducing the death penalty. Prisoners also have rights and these are part of a larger social commitment to justice.  


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