Piecemeal change?  

Tuesday, 4 March 2014 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

It seems that not just investment but prisoners may soon find themselves heading towards Hambantota. The Government is laying out plans to build a new prison fully equipped with a gymnasium, indoor sports complex and better toilet facilities for about 1,000 inmates. The new prison complex will be constructed on a 58-acre plot of land in the Angunukolapelessa area in the Hambantota District. The Cabinet-approved prisons project is to commence next month and continue for 22 months. Stage I of the project is estimated to cost Rs. 50 million and completed in two years. Prisoners from Welikada are also expected to be transferred to the new prison, possibly with the intention of freeing up land in Colombo for investment. However, relatives of prisoners may not like the change as it would mean long journeys to see their family members. Overcrowding is a severe problem in Sri Lanka’s prisons, with most inmates not allowed access to basic healthcare. Most prisoners complain of skin diseases due to overcrowding, with even officials admitting that around seven prisoners are crammed into a cell large enough to hold only one person. According to Commissioner General of Prisons Chandraratna Pallegama at present 27 prisons house 27,000 prisoners, including those awaiting or unable to meet bail conditions. Half the inmates are waiting until their cases are heard in the country’s overloaded court system. It is estimated that of about 25,000 offenders entering the prison system annually, 43% are repeat offenders. This is just a glimpse into the country’s massively deteriorated justice system. The law should ultimately serve all of 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 meted 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’.