Fixing the system

Wednesday, 22 August 2012 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In the first six months of this year, 120 prisoners have escaped. The reason, according to news reports, is that there are inadequate prison guards to keep watch, resulting in more escapes. The authorities have attempted to explain away this state of events by insisting that the escapees were serving sentences for petty crimes.   

It is no secret that massive problems exist within the system. Employing more security guards would barely graze the tip of the mountain of problems that prisons in Sri Lanka face. Severe overcrowding, inadequate funding, poor legal representation and rehabilitation together with larger problems of reintegration into society had taken the system hostage.

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. Yet tens of thousands of prisoners are kept in terrible conditions, mistreated and victimised both inside and outside prisons. The Government recently opened the largest prison in the country at a cost of Rs. 1.9 billion, which while reducing the overcrowding somewhat, did not solve it. Moreover the step to construct the new prison was motivated more by using the old prison land for a tourism project rather than a genuine desire to better the lives of inmates.

Society has all but forgotten these people and understandably believes that they are getting their just desserts. Yet for society to be just, prisoners need to be treated fairly as well. It is a utopian goal but better rehabilitation is necessary not only to reduce escapees but also to ensure society will not have to deal with repeat offenders.