An Interview with the Ex-Prison Commissioner of Sri Lanka
Posted by Chitrangi at January 12th, 2011
- 1. Please introduce yourself, briefly.
I am Lionel Weerasinghe, Correctional Professional Commissioner. I retired after serving 34 years in the governments Prison Department. My retiring position was Commissioner of Prisons (Welfare). I am a University Graduate and did my Post Graduate studies at Sri Jayawardenapura University, in Criminology and Criminal Justice.
- 2. What is your opinion about Women’s Wards in prisons and Women’s Detention Centres?
The Prison Department maintains 10 Female Detention Units all over the island. Welikada Female Ward is the biggest, with more than 500 convicted and pre-trial detainees. Apart from the Badulla female section, which is located inside the male prison of Badulla, all other female wards are maintained as a wing of the male prison but stationed separately, outside the male prison units.
Looking at the population of prisoners in Sri Lanka, only 3% are females. Because of this, little attention and priority is shown towards female detainees. Anyone can easily highlight them as a marginalised group. The male dominated prison system does not give much room for feminine behaviours and needs.
I should, however, mention here that the female inmates of the Welikada prison enjoy more opportunities and facilities than inmates in other female detention centres.
- Can you point to some difficulties female detainees face?
Overcrowding severely affects female detainees. The space allocated for women in Badulla, Galle and Tangalle prisons is very limited. They have to spend day and night in confined spaces with inadequate facilities.
Some mothers are incarcerated with children, who can be as young as under five. I think it is a very difficult task for both inmates and officials to accommodate them in a limited, closed environment with other adults. Maintaining a maternal relationship and communication with the children is another problem for prisoners.
In most of the female units, the inmates are idling. They are not engaged in activities, such as skill development or behavioural therapy. In every female ward, there is a critical need to develop legal assistance for pre trial detainees. Additional social support measures, for the relatives of the inmates who live outside, are also needed.
As a civilized society, we send criminals to prisons to protect society from their criminal activities. In the meantime, we want to rehabilitate wrong doers and reintegrate them into society. But the existing mechanism inside prisons is not effective for that said purpose.
Effective categorization systems have not been enforced inside female sections. Inmates detained for minor offences are left to mingle with criminal offenders, drug addicts and prostitutes. This is a defective and harmful process which exists in both male and female prisons.
4. Do you think that violation of human rights occur inside the prisons? If so, what is your opinion on how prevalent these violations are?
In answer to the first part of the question- yes.
Sri Lanka’s prison system is based on the prison ordinance law enacted in 1898 by the British, long before the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This ancient procedure code only covers the basic human needs of detainees; i.e. providing shelter, food, water, cloth, sanitary conditions, health care etc.
Prisoners are also entitled, without exception, to the fundamental rights ensure by Sri Lanka’s Constitution. However, it is difficult to ensure that these protections reach prisoners.
5. There are lots of outside parties such as NGOs etc. that work with prisons. By exposing the internal working system of prisons to the international community, do you feel that they might be able to improve their economic positions and thus increase their ability to help in reforming the current prison system?
With the blessing of Sri Lanka’s Government, a few INGOs and NGOs are permitted to enter prisons and assist the process of developing the systems.
If we look at the history of prison development, we notice that every major development and structural change has occurred in collaboration with outside actors.
For example, in 1976, the ex-prison officers training centre was established by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). A programme separating and treating drug addicts was started by the World Health Organization (WHO). The prison welfare service was reopened under the aegis of the Prisoners’ Welfare Association.
Therefore, I believe that the prison department needs self-improvement and reformation. Outside organizations who work with estimable intentions can contribute significantly to the reformation of the current prison system.
6. Today, prison reforms have become a popular topic of conversation. What thoughts do you have on prison reforms? How would you go along with reformation of prisons?
In my opinion, the Sri Lankan criminal justice system as a whole needs to be reformed. Prisons are only one part of the system and without redesigning the other sectors, it will not be able to produce the results we expect. Acute overcrowding is the main cause for all problems.
Since 1950 we have faced delays in the judicial system. Even after 60 long years of independence, more than 75% of the prison population consists of pre-trial detainees. Conviction rate for major offences is only 4%. The general conviction rate is 25%; out of every 4 remanded prisoners, only one is convicted. The majority of court convictions, up to 60%, relate to excise (tax) or narcotics offences.
The convicted majority belongs to short-term imprisonments, whose sentenced are less than 3 months. Of those that are imprisoned, 50% are those who couldn’t pay the misdemeanour fine.
The bail procedure of the judicial system does not help alleviate the prison overcrowding. Most of the pre-trial detainees are remanded by order of Magistrate Courts, but these are the very people who should be able to take advantage of the bail act.
I suggest that the following recommendations be implemented when undertaking prison reforms:-
*Implement the bail act to fulfil its basic principles.
*Implement the prison ordinance.
*Train the prison official to adjust to the reformed situations.
7. What can we do personally and officially to make the prisons a better place and to improve the status of women pre-trial detainees?
For women detainees:-
1. First we should unearth the real situation of pre-trial female prisoners; the cause of their incarceration, main problems, grievances and difficulties they face.
2. This would take relatively few resource, as the number of female pre-trial detainees are few in number when compared to the male prison population.
3. Female pre-trial inmates are located in number of prisons and detention centres all over the island. Only in Welikada female prison, the number amount to more than 400 but in other places it ranks in between 20 to 50.
In some prison and centres, the space for this minor group is very limited and within this limitation the basic needs of them cannot be fulfilled.
Interviewed By JusticeMaker Harshi C. Perera (AAL)