The quality of a country’s human rights are evaluated by the way it treats its prisoners. Prisoners, despite being a marginalised community, nonetheless should be treated humanely. However, the Justice Ministry this week appointed a three member committee to investigate alleged attacks on inmates of the Angunakolapelessa Prison in November after a video of Police and guards beating prisoners was leaked.
The latest video comes on top of several clashes between prisoners, especially female prisoners, and the authorities last year. These repeated incidents 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.
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.
He also observed levels of population exceeding capacity by well over 200% or 300%. Vavuniya Remand Prison in particular was a striking example of overcrowding. One of its halls hosted 170 prisoners when Mendez visited, which gave 0.6 metres of space per person. In the same building, other prisoners were forced to sleep on the staircase for lack of space in the detention areas. In addition, cells designed for one person were occupied by four or five inmates.
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 10-15 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 across the system. 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.