Situation could spiral out of control, warns official | Sunday Observer
Overcrowding in Sri Lankan jails

Situation could spiral out of control, warns official

6 August, 2023

The authorities were yesterday finding it hard pressed to control the overcrowding in the country’s jails and conceded that immediate action must be taken to rectify the situation or else it could spiral out of control.

At present there are 29,000 plus inmates inside the country’s 30 jails and the numbers are ticking on out of which 29,000 are remandees mainly drug offenders who need to be rehabilitated instead of being dumped inside a jail, Additional Prisons Commissioner and media spokesman, Chandana Ekanayake told the Sunday Observer.

He said that there was a recent outbreak of Chickenpox among some of the inmates at the Vavuniya jail and they had to be isolated while the authorities are monitoring the situation.

He said both the police and the judicial system should have a re-think before deciding in sending a person to remand.

Bureaucratic red tape

‘The prison authorities are facing an uphill struggle in trying to contain the situation and in case there is outbreak of a viral epidemic or a contagious disease it would disastrous and therefore the relevant authorities should drop the bureaucratic red tape and act fast before it is too late’, Ekanayake said.

At present two facilities are under construction at Wariyapola and Negombo to accommodate drug offenders and they should be completed in the next two months, he said.

‘However, having said that fresh buildings alone will not help but there should be a well planned out mechanism for rehabilitation and responsibility lies with the police in particular and society on a much large scale’, Ekanayake said.

For example, he said, that at present there is a 3000 percent overcrowding at the Welikada prisons.

“We are currently facing a huge full blown crisis inside the country’s jails and we lack the required funds and equipment to effectively tackle the issue”, Secretary to the Ministry of Prisons reforms Wasantha Perera sad.

“We are looking at the possibility of confining persons for minor offences to house arrest until their cases are taken for hearing.

But here again we do not have the adequate funds, equipment and the manpower to implement such changes unlike in most developed countries”, she said.

Humanitarian problem

“What we are facing right now is a very serious humanitarian problem since prisoners too have their rights and therefore we need to something at the very earliest to ease the congestion in the country’s jails, Perera said.

“This overcrowding inside the jails has been existence for the one and a half decades although there have been promises after promises from governments to change the situation.

Overcrowding was the chief cause for the jail riots in Mahara in 2020 that left 11 inmates dead and scores of others injured.

This was also endorsed in a report by a committee that was set up to inquire the real reasons behind the riots”, Senaka Perera with the Committee for Protecting the Rights of prisoners” told the Sunday Observer.

A separate committee in 2012 also blamed overcrowding as one of the most chief reasons for the riots at the Welikaka jail that left 27 inmates dead, he said.

UN Convention

Sri Lanka is also as a signatory to the UN Convention of 1953 (‘Minimum Standard for Prisoners’) where a cell is permitted to hold only a single person.

At present a cell holds some 13 persons and nobody is even talking about that and those mainly responsible for this silence are the politicians from across the political divide, Perera who is also an Attorney-at Law said.

He also echoed the sentiments of others saying that rehabilitation of minor offenders were the only proper answer to the current problem that could discourage them from future criminal practices.

“At the end of the day the dumb animals in the zoo have more space for their limbs when compared with the humans serving time in our country’s jails”, he said.