A plea for prisoners

Wednesday, 25 January 2012 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Twenty- four people have been injured in prison clashes over the past two days. While this is hardly a large number for a society that seems to be inured to violence, the ability to ignore these reoccurring incidents is diminishing. They beg for attention and possibly solutions through a more efficient prisons system.

Clashes in prisons are a common occurrence, partially due to the inhuman conditions that prisoners are forced to endure and a completely inept justice system that is fast losing public trust. Prisoners are a group to be pitied in Sri Lanka as they are repeatedly victimised by society and the judicial system. This is not to say that they should be pardoned, but at a time when corruption and even murderers run free, hope for their humane treatment remains a utopian dream.    

In 2010, around 50% of people sent home after serving their prison sentences returned. Newspapers reported that out of 32,128 prisoners who were rehabilitated and sent home last year, 12,597 returned to spend time behind bars. Over 7,590 people have been remanded more than once in 2010. Over 5,000 people returned to prison twice after being released. Prison records show that 50% of people who are sent home return each year in Sri Lanka.

The statistics shockingly show that 86 people were remanded a whopping 11 times in 2010. This is just a glimpse into the country’s massively deteriorated justice system. The law should ultimately serve the entire society, which includes the wrongdoers who should be given a chance to learn something new and return to their lives with the ability to live within legal parameters.

The fact that half of prisoners in Sri Lanka end up back behind bars each year shows that the rehabilitation policies are largely a failure. Criminals are made, not born, and it is clear that the economic resurgence of the country must reach these people if they are to move into living within the law. The more people who are left to languish in prison and not allowed to lead a normal life, the more accustomed they become to violence and working for drug barons, corrupt politicians and other underworld members.

A total of 57,000 grave crimes were committed in 2010. Barely 25% reached the courts for prosecution and only 4% led to convictions. With a virtually defunct criminal justice system, the public at large has come to view the extra judicial killings as a rough and ready substitute. The public also view the prisoners as being a ‘useless’ component of society and in many instances deserving of the rough treatment metered out to them.

While offenders with money can even be acquitted of murder, there are prisoners who cannot make bail and languish in prison. Female inmates with families or confined to death row face hellish conditions of being parted from their children or in the case of the latter, fighting for basic necessities such as sleeping mats and pillows.

The juvenile prisons are no better, with basics in dire need. As a country that has supposedly pledged itself to inclusive development, Sri Lankans cannot let prisoners become the ‘forgotten people’.