INTERVIEW: Ex- Prisons Commissioner speaks out

Interviewed by  Harshi C. Perera
 (December 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)

1. Please introduce yourself, briefly.

I am Lionel Weerasinghe, Correctional Professional Commissioner. I retired after serving 34 years in 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 Centers?

Prison Department maintains 10 Female Detention Units all over the island. Welikada Female Ward is the biggest where more than 500 females both convicted and suspected are detained, except 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.

When comparing with the population of prisoners in Sri Lanka, only 3% are females. Because of this, a very poor attention and priority is shown towards female detainees. Any one can easily criticize it as a forgotten group of human being.

And pathetically, this minority group is under males’ domination. The male dominant prison system does not give much room for the feminine behaviors and needs.

But, I should mention here that the female inmates of the Welikada prison enjoy more opportunities and facilities than the inmates in other female detention centers.

3. Can you point some difficulties the women detainees face?

Overcrowding, severely affect the female detainees in prisons. The space allocated for the females in Badulla, Galle and Tangalle prisons is not enough and very limited. They have to spend whole day and night in the limited space with inadequate facilities.

Some mothers spend their prison life with their infant or child who is under five years of age. I think it is a very difficult task for both the inmates and the officials to accommodate them in a limited, closed environment with other adult inmates.

Maintaining family relationship and communications with the children is another problem for female inmates.

In most of the female units, the inmates are idling. They are not engaged in activities of skill development or behavioral changes. In every female ward, I believe that there is a critical need for legal assistance for pre trial inmates who are detained inside, and social supporter measures for the relatives of the detainees who live out side helplessly in their homes.

Effective categorizing system has not been enforced inside the female sections. Inmates detained for minor offences are left to mingle with the criminal offenders, drug addicts and prostitutes. This is an inter defective and very harmful process which exists in both male and female prison institutions.

4. There have been several irregularities and ongoing illegal activities inside the prison. Are you familiar with these irregularities and illegal activities? How prevalent do you think these irregularities and illegal activities are?

Prison is a social creation and it gives the real reflection of the society. You can sight the social behaviors in the prison mirror.

In our country the authority of law has lost its supremacy. Social order has collapsed. Everywhere we experience bribery, corruption, wastage of resources and energy. All social institutions violate their norms and ethics but enjoy discriminating.

In such a social environment, you have to establish and maintain more prison to incarcerate certain amount of people.

And these prisons are governed by the officials who live and come from the same society, influenced by the prevailing trends of the society.

With such a social environment can you expect a well disciplined humanity, and safe secured prison system? You can’t.

As I have heard and learned, prisons are built by stones of laws. But the present situation is that these stones are gradually dismounted and hollowed. We have seen and heard about the worst situations of Sri Lankan prisons through the mass media. Not only the mass media, but also the former minister of prison reforms openly thrashed out recently the critical conditions of the prisons.

As a civilized society, we send criminals to prisons to protect the society from their criminal activities. In the meantime, we want to correct these wrong doers and reintegrate to the society. But the existing mechanism inside the prisons is not efficient for the said purpose. Then what might happen is not the good or the better, but not only the bad, the worst.

5. Do you think that violation of human rights occur inside the prisons? If so, what is your opinion on how prevalent these violations are?

Answer for the first part of the question, is yes.

I consider that the daily functions, based on the prison ordinance, are the biggest violations of human rights of the prisoners.

Sri Lankan prison system is based on the prison ordinance enacted in the year of 1884 by the British rulers, which was introduced in this country, before the Universal Declaration on human rights. This ancient ordinance consists and covers only the area of basic human needs of the detainees. (i.e. providing shelter, food, water, cloth, sanitary conditions, health care etc.)

In addition to that the constitutional rights, specially the fundamental rights protected by the Sri Lanka Constitution, is entitle also to prisoners without any exception.

But the actual and practical situation is entirely different.

Most of the humanitarian accesses of the prison ordinance are not effectively enforced by the prison authorities. And it is not so easy that the protection of constitutional fundamental right to reach a prisoner who is in a prison.

So I should mention that everyday the violations occur every where and degrading treatments exist in every corner. Assault and intimidation is the governing instrument in Sri Lankan prison. No remedial measures are being stabilized.

6. Is there or was there been any political influence in administrating your duties?

Prison is not an important institution for politicians. Because of that unimportant politicians do not interfere in the day to day activities of the prisons.

But the bad effects of the 1978 constitution affected the administration setup of the prison department in similar manner, as to how far the other departments and state institutions were affected.

Through the new practices, like appointing of heads of departments is influenced by politics and the quality of the correctional professionalism is minimized. Political interference in transfers or promotions of officials is very common.

In same way there is interference in new recruitments too.

7. 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?

Here, I would like to mention that there are not very many NGOs but only a few works with prisons in Sri Lanka.

The reason why I would like to comment on this is that the Sri Lankan prison setup never prefers outsiders or organizations interfering in it, especially with regard to Human Rights objectives.

In prison attitudes, there are two categories of behaviors, the hardcore party believes that the outside interference is harmful or troublesome and they always discourage it.

The soft type party express the view that organizations which could easily controllable may be allowed to work only on selected fields like offering donations, instruments, materials, consumer commodities etc.

Meanwhile with the blessing of Sri Lanka Government, a few INGOs and NGOs are permitted to enter in assisting the process of developing prisons and its systems.

Any how, I should mention here, that the system of the Sri Lankan prisons is not updated by the state for a long time. Because of this, prisons cannot stand the developments without the engagement of outside organizations.

If we go through the prison history, we can notice that every major structural change in prison system or each and every new addiction have occurred with the external interference.

For example, in 1976, Ex Prison Officers Training Centre was established by UNDP fund. Separation and treatment of drug addict prisoners program was started with the interference of WHO. Prison Welfare Service was reopened by the initiation of Prisoners’ Welfare Association.

Therefore, I believe that the prison department needs self renovation or reformation. The relevancy of outside organizations which work in genuine intention can contribute a lot for the reformation of current prison system.

8. 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?

At first I should say not only the prison but the whole society need to be reformed and restructured.

Secondly, Sri Lankan Criminal Justice System needs to be reformed. Prison is only one part of the system and without redesigning the other part; it will not be able to produce the results we expect.

Acute overcrowding is the main cause for all problems. Because of the failure of the criminal justice system, a huge amount of unnecessary crowd flow into prisons.

From 1950 we face delays in the judicial service. Even after the very long 60 years of independency, we could not been able to stop or at less reduce the large percentage of count proceeds. More than 75% of prison population consist pre trial detainees. Convict rate of the major offences is only 4%. The general conviction rate is 25%; out of every 4 remanded prisoners, convict is only one. Majority of court conviction is on excise or narcotic drug offence. It counts up to 60%.

The convicted majority belongs to short term imprisonments, who are sentenced to less than 3 months or so. 50% of the imprisoned victims are those who couldn’t pay the fine.

The one, who is unable to pay the fine at the court house, will be sentenced to serve a term in prison.

The bail procedure of the judicial system does not rend any assistance to reduce the overcrowding in prisons. Most of the pretrial detainees are remanded by order of Magistrate Courts and they are considered as the bail able persons in the bail act.

I suggest that the following recommendations could be implemented when doing prison reforms:-

*Implement the bail act to full fill its basic principles.

*Implement the prison ordinance.

*Train the prison official to adjust to the reformed situations.

*Reserve the post of Commissioner General of Prison only for the deserving Correctional Professionals.

9. The prison systems in developed countries utilize a variety of approaches to prison administration, which Sri Lanka does not employ. Do you believe that we should employ their methods in our prisons? If so, what methods?

I firmly believe in implementing an advanced method, strategist of custodial care and correctional system. Because, every profession has its own and individual basic principals.

These principals are very common and with the beginning of overseas training, which exist everywhere universally, but with limitation and conditions.

New introductions by Magistrates make barriers on bail release. And in some occasions the wrong interpretation of law by police and the court house add extra burden onto the prison authorities.

So I would like to emphasize that:-

First, reform the prison system.

Then, prepare the prisons to accommodate the reformations.

Remove the unnecessary amount of inmates and reduce the crowd.

Categorize the prisoners who are sentenced for more than 5 years imprisonment and locate them separately.

Remove the term prisoners from custody by implementing community based correctional system, Probation and Compulsory Drug-treatment Act etc.

Improve the conditions on pre-release and include low risks to convicted prisoners

Reduce the residential congestions; stabilize the pre release preparations and voluntary after care scheme.

10. 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 the free trial women detainees:-

1. First we should unearth the real situation of pre trial woman prisoners; there cause of incarceration, the main problems, the grievances and difficulties they face.

2. When comparing with the population of male prisoners, as the pre trial women prisoners are very small in number, it could be done because it necessitates very low attention.

3. Pre trial woman inmates are located in number of prisons and detention centers 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 centers, the space for this minor group is very limited and within this limitation the basic needs of them can not be full filled.

3. Prisons are dominated by males. The administration setup is designed accordingly. Hence, there prevail unseen inconveniences which are very small and forgotten lot, especially in Anuradhapura, Negombo, Kandy, Welikada, Kuruvita and Kalutara prisons. The space in Galle, Tangalle and Badulla prisons is not enough.

Vagrancy Ordinance, implementing this ordinance crests most of congestion problems.

The prison officials who work there introduce some changes. Mr. V.N Pilla and Mr. J.P.Delgoda former commissioners, who had the intervention exposure, introduced the reformation aspect of departments.

From gained experience and knowledge Mr. Delgoda introduced the reform activities and he was been able to interpret prison ordinance for this purpose.

I believe that light fall on with his forgive exposure.

He had the strength of the UN standard rules for treatment of prisoners and International guide lines for prison administration.

We accepted the guidelines of UN in 1970, but now we are in 2010 and still we are not following these guidelines. As prison officials we have not come to an agreement in following this guide lines, because there is no encouragement to follow these guidelines.

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