COVID 19 Raises the Urgent Need to Ease Congestion in Prisons

It goes without saying, that currently, the COVID-19 Virus has become the most feared of illnesses the world over.  Apart from wearing masks and constant washing of hands, maintaining at least a meter’s distance between people has become our new normal.

For those who have access to uninterrupted water supply, sanitizers and large areas of space, observing such guidelines is not an issue.  Not so, for those who live in less privileged circumstances.  And amongst all of these persons, the right to enjoy or maintain that one meter of space between oneself and another is almost non-existent for those behind bars.

Globally, prison systems and governments adopted various policies to curb the spread of COVID 19, amongst the incarcerated.  These ranged from pardoning those held for minor offences, barring visits by family, temporary closures of gym and recreation halls and managing meal times so the numbers served at any given time was smaller than usual.

Protests and riots by prisoners fearful of being infected by the virus were reported from several parts of the world.

In Sri Lanka it has been no different. The first protests broke out amongst prisoners at the Anuradhapura jail in March this year, resulting in the deaths of two inmates.  Triggered by the government’s decision to ban family visits during the initial island-wide curfew imposed that month, inmates protestedagainst the congested conditions they were living in.

Since then there have been a few other protests, with the most recent taking place on November 12th at the Bogambara Prison, in Kandy. While one of the five inmates who were attempting to escape during the protests  died, and another was injured, allegedly when guards opened fire, the media learnt that this time, inmates were demanding that all those in the prison system be tested for COVID, instead of the random PCR testing being conducted at present.

On November 13th, The Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners wrote to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, urging him to ensure that all prisoners and staff are administered the PCR Test, instead of the random testing in operation right now.    Pointing out that the heavy congestion in the prisons makes it impossible to enforce the health guidelines suggested, the letter, signed by its Chairman,  Lawyer Senaka Perera , pointed out that not only are the prisons crowded, even sanitation facilities such as toilets were a bare minimum.  This was the second letter to the President by the Committee, since the COVID outbreak in the country.

The November 13th letter said, ‘We would remind you at this juncture that the reason for the opposition that arose subsequent to the killing of two prisoners in Anuradhapura Prison on 2020/03/21 and the prisoners opposition at the BogambaraPrison on 2020/11/12 was there not being an adequate program to protect prisoners lives from COVID-19.”

The Committee’s letter to the President in March this year drew his attention not only to the congestion in prisons, but also to the shortcomings found in Prison Hospitals, adding that such a situation not only poses a danger to the inmates, but also to the staff.

Accordingly, the Committee requested the President to:

1. As per the four year review system identified in the Prisons Ordinance, facilitate the release of those eligible.

2.  Grant ‘home leave’ to eligible inmates as Per the Prisons Ordinance.

3. Release those inmates serving light sentences, those incarcerated owing to their inability to pay the small fine imposed, those who are seriously ill and those over the age of 70, through the powers vested in the President, through clause 34 of the Constitution.

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More than 3000 prisoners have been received presidential pardons this year.(Photo courtesy, PMD News.)

In light of the recent incidents, media reported that State Minister for Prison Reforms, Dr. Sudharshani Fernandopulle hadinstructed the Ministry Secretary to appoint a committee to investigate the matter and report back to her in three weeks.  She has also directed that disciplinary and legal action be taken against those found responsible for the incidents.

Meanwhile , a Presidential Task Force appointed earlier this year, to “build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society, will, apart from other duties assigned  also be ‘investigating and preventing any illegal and antisocial activities in and around prisons.” The Taskforce is made up of current and former military personnel, and officers involved in law and order.  There seems to be no one with experience in the prison system, on the Task Force.

Overcrowding in prisons is indeed a serious issue and one that will negatively impact inmates during an outbreak of any contagious illness.

The Five Year Plan (2021-2025) on Prison Reforms, titled ‘ARight Based Correctional System for a Safer Society”, published by the Department of Prisons is quite revealing.  The report states that the total recommended capacity in all of the prison institutions in the country is 11,762.  The report notes that ‘Around, 27,500 inmates have already been detained in a prison which is more than two times of the capacity. It is more than three times in Colombo and other main prisons. Prison overcrowding percentage in the prison system of the country is 173% which has resulted (in) the depression among inmates and the rehabilitation mechanism has also been negatively affected.’

The report also points out that that the main reason for overcrowding is the increase in the number of people who are being remanded.  It adds that 19.3% of the total remand population has been held in custody for minor offences, and for less than 14 days.   Of note though, is that the report points to the fact that the number of convictions as opposed to those remanded is very low.  ‘The ratio between convicted and remand population is 1:4 which reveals that the number of convictions out of remand population is very low. Therefore, unnecessary remand population has been identified as one of the reasons for the overcrowding in prisons.”

 

The report also identifies the fact that while those in prison for minor offences are comparatively higher,  ‘18.9% from total prison population,’   many are serving sentences that are often less than a month,  while a good number of others are being heldowing to their inability to pay the fines imposed.      A considerable percentage of prison inmates are serving sentences for issues involving drugs;   46.4% of the convicted are in for dangerous drug offenses, while 62.4% are for drug related crimes, says the report.

Prison reforms then are clearly an urgent need, not simply to protect inmates from COVID or similar infections, but because it is the inalienable right of  every human being to live, even within the confines of a jail in dignity and safety.

This is not to say that there are no other concerns that negatively impact the incarcerated.  Indeed, the mental health of inmatesand staff, women’s safety and hygiene and their children, issues faced by young offenders are all equally important and must be addressed satisfactorily. However, the most urgent matter in terms of containing the spread of COVID, is minimising, as far as possible the congestion in prisons and better coverage of inmates and staff in terms of testing for the virus.

The report of the Prison Department notes that the need for reform had been identified and accepted as a policy several years ago.  The Ministry of Prison Reforms and Rehabilitation had been set up in 2009.  That is 11 years ago.  Even though some changes have been implemented since then, the Prison Department report itself highlights the complete inadequacy of such moves.   Interestingly, the report notes that the process of reformation has remained the same, because the priorities of governments keep changing.

That is a telling indictment of a government’s lackadaisicalapproach, past and present to prisoners. If there was genuine commitment, surely, more of the categories of inmates identified in the Report and by the Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners who need not remain incarcerated could have been released and overcrowding eased.

Granted, there have been some efforts to release prisoner so identified; media reports indicate that around 512 inmates had been release to mark Sri Lanka’s Independence in February and 444 in September this year.  Other reports stated that in March close to 3000 inmates had been released on bail.

Yet, these releases hardly make a dent to the numbers incarcerated.  And in the context of COVID, these inmates are living with the constant fear of being infected, with little they can do about escaping that possibility.

Senaka Perera explains that a more robust system, where those charged for petty crimes, first time offenders of minor violations etc. could, instead of being jailed, ordered to do community service. Such methods would help reduce congestion.

It is indeed commendable that the government has appointed various committees to look into matters concerning Sri Lanka’s prison system,  and that the Prison Department itself, has recently published their five year plan for prison reforms.

Sri Lanka’s malaise is that successive governments prefer to throw out any changes or gains made in any sector by their predecessor and reinvent the wheel.  Public resources are used on the committees appointed and the reports that are written.  Yet, the wheels of change are painfully slow.  Here we are in 2020, with a five year plan just published on reforms, that a government accepted as policy in 2009!

Meanwhile, the very people who should be benefitting from such changes continue to languish in dangerously congested prisons.

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