Drug addicts, minor offenders need to be rehabilitated, says Rights Activist | Sunday Observer
Overcrowding in country’s jails

Drug addicts, minor offenders need to be rehabilitated, says Rights Activist

3 September, 2023

A prisoner’s rights activist yesterday called on the authorities to set up a rehabilitation program at the very earliest for drug users and minor offenders since these individuals are choking the country’s jails and warned that the situation could spiral out of control.

Attorney-at-law Senaka Perera with the Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoner’s said it was a futile exercise for these people behind bars with other serious offenders because once they are released most of them return to their old habits.

He said that setting up new facilities such as detention centres for such inmates would be a futile exercise if there is no proper rehabilitation.

“This is something the State must address very carefully and without delay or else the number would just be growing each day and the holding space at the jails will not be adequate”, Perera said.

He said that his movement has already taken up the matter with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Human Rights Council (HRC) seeking assistance towards this end, Perera said.

According to latest statistics there are 40,000 inmates in the country’s jails and out of this figure some 19,000 are drug addicts and minor offenders.

Under a UN Convention in 1953 which Sri Lanka endorsed a holding cell meant for a single inmate at present is packed with 13, according to Perera.

Scores dead

He said that the jail riots witnessed in past at Welikada and Mahara that left scores dead was a result of the overcrowding and such a scenario could not be ruled out in the future.

“Not only that but there are also serious health risks such as the recent case in Galle and Vavuniya where two inmates died and several fell sick’, Perera said.

In addition youngsters sent into remand for drugs and other minor offences are forced to share the same cells with hardcore criminals and therefore they could be easily brainwashed.

“These are easy recruits for the hardcore criminals and when these youngsters finally come out of jail they have a criminal mindset and before long they find themselves behind bars.

Therefore, it must be repeated that the only answer to the rise of young criminals is rehabilitation and nothing else, Perera said.

He said politicians across the political divide have over the many years opted to remain silent on this although the matter has occasionally been raised in Parliament and the matter tends to end there.

Earlier the Secretary of the Prison’s Reforms Ministry Wasantha Perera also said the present overcrowding in jails had reached its maximum but there was very little the prison authorities could do to address the issue.

“There has to be a collective effort with all the relevant State actors to address the issue.

She also endorsed that placing minor offenders and drug addicts under house arrest or deploying them for social duties could be the correct thinking at this time.


It is the practice in many other countries largely in the West and elsewhere but to do this we need more man power, equipment and so on”, she said.

“The largest issue at hand is the remand prisoners that make up more two-thirds of the current prison population and therefore something has to be done at the very earliest.

Two new facilities are currently under construction at Negombo and Wariyapola to hold remand prisoners, the bulk being drug addicts and other minor offenders” Deputy Prisons Comissioner and Media Spokesman Chandana Ekanayake said.

He said the prison authorities are currently holding discussions with the Attorney General’s Department and the police in a bid to find a way in coming up with a proper solution to the crisis.

The society should also play a role in advising the youth against the dangers of drug abuse and other crimes and this could start from the immediate family, school and places of worship, he said.

He said the prison authorities were also aware of the dangers in overcrowding such as the spreading of infectious and dangerous diseases as was the recent case in the Galle Prison but at the same time there is very little that can be done at present.

“At present there are an estimated 30,000 inmates both remand suspects and convicted persons in the country’s 30 jails and the numbers are mounting each day.


The prison authorities along with the relevant ministry, the Attorney General’s Department and Police are currently holding discussions on a regular basis to seek a solution to the crisis at the very earliest bur at the end of the day it seems to e an uphill task altogether”, Ekanayake told the Sunday Observer.

He said overcrowding in jails is largely owing to drug offenders - 20,000 of the entire 30,000 prison population at present.

“There has to be a serious re-think on the issue and towards this end the authorities are currently constructing facilities at Negombo and Wariyapola to house drug dependants and others held for minor offences’, Ekanayake said.