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Friday, 23 July 2010






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Government Gazette

Prison reforms

Prison reform has been on the national agenda for many years but regrettably no headway has been made in this respect with several governments only paying lip service to the topic. In the meantime problems associated with our prisons keep mounting with conditions in prisons further deteriorating and welfare of prisoners increasingly neglected. This may be as a result of the prejudiced mindset cultivated with regard to our prisoners considered as social outcasts warranting no special attention. If so this is a gross misconception because the attitude towards the prisoner community is changing in the present day with prisoners being viewed more sympathetically rather than being typecast as social outcasts. Therefore any prison reforms contemplated should factor in this change and make the necessary adjustments.

We say this because once again the subject of Prison Reform has come to the fore. Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms Minister D. E. W. Gunasekera was quoted in our lead story yesterday as saying that the Prisons Department will be subjected to radical reforms with immediate effect as the Department does not meet the present day requirements. The Minister could not be more accurate. Today our prisons are still administered in the style of a colonial relic with its mode of operations and many practices bordering on the primitive dating back to a bygone era. Therefore the first task of the reformers should be to pull down this colonial edifice and adapt to the modern times taking examples from other countries on how prisons are being administered.

The Minister also stated that no reforms have been carried out so far even though the Department was established in 1844 making it one of the oldest Departments in Sri Lanka. Those advocating prison reforms agree that any reform needs a holistic approach. So far what has been carried out is patchwork remedies which fail to meet the present day challenges. Our prisons are still run on archaic norms and practices at a time when the more developed countries have made great strides in the area of prison reforms.

In many countries minor offenders instead of being confined behind prison walls are made to exist in the open as far as possible in domestic settings making it a veritable home away from home. Most countries also have open air prisons where prisoners function as a community with all common amenities and recreational facilities provided together with family reunions.

Minister Gunasekera also said that a 12-member expert panel has been appointed to forward suggestions to the Ministry regarding the manner in which prison reforms should be carried out. Hopefully this panel will not go the same way as all similar bodies appointed to tackle this subject. It would be a herculean task indeed for the panel considering the myriad problems and shortcomings in our prisons. The entire prisons system, needless to say, needs a complete overhaul and the panel will have to begin work from scratch.

For starters it will have to ensure that sufficient funds are voted in the budget to carry out the intended reforms. Today the main complaint is that Prisons lack funds for even its basic functions and operations. The panel will also have to deal with seamy side within our prison walls. It will have to rip off the rotten underbelly and decay within our prisons where corruption has become institutionalized. Today it is no secret that there is a dark subterranean life that is thriving in all our prisons with a mafia controlling the operations. If not how come the killing of a well known High Court judge who sent a notorious drug lord to prison was traced to the selfsame drug lord who was languishing behind bars?

Today prisoners find it more convenient and lucrative to remain inside prisons than outside, given the thriving businesses involving drugs alcohol and even prostitution that is going on behind the cloistered walls of our prisons. These are mostly carried out with the connivance of prison officials who are being heavily bribed. Recently it was revealed how a notorious prisoner was even allowed to leave the prisons to visit his family. Most prisoners today possess mobile phones. They carry out drug deals and another business. No prison reforms can succeed if this subterranean life within our prison walls is allowed to continue. Therefore a complete clean up in the prison administration is called for.

Another priority task before the panel is to come up with a solution for overcrowding of our prisons. It is no exaggeration to say that our prisons today are bursting at the seams. The problem is exacerbated by the primitive facilities for prisoners which will make prisoners more hardened and bitter.

One solution to deal with prison overcrowding is a more lenient stance against first time offenders and those held for minor felonies. They should be given the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves by segregating them from hardcore criminals outside the confines of the prisons. As mentioned before these prisoners should be made part of our community with a proper climate created for them to pick up their lives once they leave their period of confinement. Today most overcrowding is the result of minor offenders being unable to pay their fines. The rules governing parole too should be reviewed for the early release of prisoners for good conduct.

The vocational training programs now being given to prisoners too should be updated taking into account the skills of each individual prisoner. Most of all they should be instilled with confidence to go back into society free from any sense of ostracization.

Martin Wickramasinghe

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