Over 40 suspects have been arrested for the prison riots that took place last week. However, there is little indication of any steps being taken to finding lasting solutions to the problems of Sri Lanka’s prison system.
The ramifications of the riot at the New Magazine Prison may not be far-reaching, given the isolated nature of penal institutions. However, it has made prison administration and power structures a talking point in the press. The reportage suggests that the prison is dominated by a group including drug lords, prison inmates, and corrupt prison officials – a parallel power structure to that of its administrative authorities.
There is speculation as to whether the recent protest and subsequent riot occurred spontaneously, or were instigated by these vested interests. Such speculation was fuelled by a fire in the prison records room in which around 1,800 records were reportedly destroyed. The possible fallout for the prisons drug trade arising from a new rule of prohibiting food parcels being delivered to remand prisoners is considered the trigger of the riot.
The event highlights several issues plaguing the prison system, especially the absence of a debate in the public discourse on rehabilitation of criminals. Although inhumane treatment was a possible trigger for the recent events, no comment has been made on prison reform or prisoners’ rights.
Another concern is the sheer number of detainees currently remanded – those not yet convicted of a crime. The decline of capital punishment in developed societies and the establishment of penal institutions are seen as steps taken by modern states towards a higher degree of restorative as opposed to retributive justice.
It seems that the only time Sri Lanka comes close to that is when it releases prisoners every Independence Day and Vesak. The very fact that hundreds who are judged to be of no harm to society can be released at least twice a year is indicative of the fact that people can be easily rehabilitated as sent to prison.
The riot helped demonstrate that the corrupt and dehumanising regime of the current prison system is serving less a restorative function than a retributive one, while underlining the dire need for a general overhaul of the conditions and culture that prevail in Sri Lankan jails.
It is typical of government policies that they look for stop gap solutions rather than taking a holistic view to solve prisoner unrest. If some misguided person believes that having inhumane prisons acts as a deterrent they only need to look at prison records to see that 50% of all people released from jail return – most within a year.
It is clear that the judicial and prison system is crying out for positive change so that the development Sri Lanka so desperately craves goes beyond new roads and harbours. The treatment of prisoners is one of the best ways to gauge the standard of human rights in a country and if that standard is applied to Sri Lanka it would be found sadly wanting.
The challenge is for officials to stop considering the recent riots as an isolated problem and look deeper into the problems that the system cross bred with corruption has created.