The Prison System: Over Crowded And Corrupt
By Michael Hardy
Photos by Rohan Vitarana
Cells so overcrowded that prisoners are forced to sleep on their sides. Two functioning toilets for 300 female inmates. Colonial-era facilities that haven’t been upgraded in decades. A prison system called one of the worst in the world by a UN report. Welcome to Sri Lanka’s gulag archipelago, where a perfect storm of overcrowding, corruption and under-funding has created hell in the midst of paradise for the island’s approximately 25,000 prisoners.
According to exclusive interviews with members of the Board of Visitors — a commission within the Ministry of Justice and Law Reform that is conducting an investigation into prison conditions — the country’s jails are in serious crisis. This crisis is the product of three distinct institutions, each with its own problems: the prisons, the police, and the courts. All too often, the prison system is asked to clean up the mess made by the police and the magistrates.
After being ignored for decades, the prison crisis is finally receiving attention from the new Minister of Justice, Milinda Moragoda. One of Moragoda’s appointees to the Board of Visitors acknowledged that the prisons have not been a high priority in recent years.
“There was neglect,” the Board of Visitors member said. “We have limited resources, so where are the priorities? And the prison staff has been educated on these (low) standards.”
According to him, the problems begin with the police’s “lax investigations” of suspects. He said that he knew of people who have been in prison for anywhere from three to six years while awaiting their trial. Often, suspects must wait months or years before the police even get around to filing charges against them. In most countries, this would be unconstitutional. In Sri Lanka, it’s the norm: almost 20 percent of 14,966 trials pending in Sri Lankan courts date from 1999 or earlier, according to Ministry of Justice statistics.
“There needs to be a tighter liaison between the investigative arm of the police and the magistrates,” the Board of Visitors member said. “This is a serious problem.”
While the police drag their feet over an investigation, the magistrate is faced with a choice: remand the prisoner or release him on bail. All too often, according to experts, the magistrate chooses remand, adding one more body to an already over-stuffed prison system.
The 2008 edition of Prisons Statistics Of Sri Lanka, issued by the Statistics Division of Prisons Headquarters, paints a bleak picture of the situation. According to the book, unconvicted prisoners, or remandees, made up over 75 percent of all prisoner admissions in 2007, the last year for which the book provides data. On any given day of that year, over half of the entire prison population was likely to be made up of remandees. This statistic suggests that magistrates routinely remand suspects for minor offences, filling up jails with non-violent criminals.
“Eighty percent of prisoners are in jail for soft crimes — drug possession, nonpayment of a fine, cheating somebody,” the member of the Board of Visitors said. “The magistrate remands the suspect for the smallest thing, because they’re afraid that the suspect will escape.”
Meanwhile, the suspect, who may be in prison for the first time, is mingling with hardened, long-term criminals. The Colombo prison system is supposed to consist of three levels of confinement: remand, magazine, and the main prison. But because of overcrowding, prisoners from all three sections freely intermingle, creating what one expert called a “university of crime.” According to Board of Visitors member A. Imthiaz Ismail, this intermingling can introduce new prisoners to the criminal lifestyle:
“In the remand prison you’ll also find convicted prisoners, and in the other prisons you’ll find remand prisoners,” Ismail said. “This has basically led to the criminal minds making use of the non-criminals. When suspects leave, they have a degree in crime.”
Jails are particularly inappropriate for drug addicts, who can find themselves in the same cell with a drug peddler and a drug importer. Instead of getting rehabilitation, the addict finds easy access to every kind of illegal drug. To combat this problem, the Minister of Justice is working with the private sector and foreign governments to fund new drug rehabilitation centers.
One member of the Board of Visitors remembers touring a prison when a loaf of bread was thrown over the wall from outside. When prison guards cut open the bread they discovered a cache of opium. Many visitors to prison have been discovered smuggling drugs in their anus.
Drugs aren’t the only banned item that circulates freely in prisons. Although cell phones are totally prohibited, even one contraband phone can give hundreds of inmates access to the outside world, since prisoners can easily hide their own SIM cards. One phone can be passed from prisoner to prisoner, each inmate inserting his own SIM card to make calls.
“There are fellows controlling the underworld from inside the prison using cell phones,” one expert said. “They have even used the phones to order murders.”
Because of the high volume of contraband, every visitor to a prison must undergo a full-body search. After enduring this invasive search, visitors only have 15 minutes to see a prisoner. The small meeting rooms can be crowded and loud, and visitors often have trouble carrying on a conversation with the prisoner.
“The facilities for visitors are horrible,” said a recent visitor to Colombo’s magazine prison. “Visitors come from far away and they endure a lot of hardship. They have to wait in the sun, and they only have one toilet. There’s no privacy at all.”
In addition to the regular prisons, there are eight work camps in the country. Here, convicted prisoners are supposed to learn skills that they can use to find employment after serving their sentence. Unfortunately, these work camps have been so neglected that prisoners learn little that is useful to them in the outside world. With tools and machinery that sometimes date to the colonial era, these convicts leave prison no more prepared for a job than when they arrived.
“At the moment, this system is not working very well,” said a member of the Board of Visitors who is focusing on improving the work camps. “Some of our facilities were set up during the time of the British. There has been a little bit of upgrading, but not very much. There is a great need to train the trainers, to upgrade their skills so that these skills can be imparted to the prisoners. Then, the prisoners need up-to-date tools — a lot of work needs to be done there.”
There is additional controversy over the prisoners’ low wage, which was set decades ago and hasn’t been increased to keep pace with inflation. Business owners complain that they can’t compete with the products made at prisons, since these products are produced at a minimum cost to the state. Many have accused the state of using slave labour, a characterization that the Board of Visitors member agreed with. He said that the solution was to pay the prisoners a competitive wage if they produce a high-quality, saleable product. This would have the additional benefit of providing the prisoners with spending money and allowing them to save for when they are released.
Not surprisingly, the overcrowding at prisons leads to deplorable health conditions. At one ward in a Colombo prison, there are only two functioning toilets for 200 inmates; another has the same number of toilets for over 300 prisoners. A recent visitor to the Colombo magazine prison found 1,700 prisoners sharing 12 squatting toilets (“what are disabled prisoners to do?” asked the visitor) and the 100 prison guards sharing only one toilet. In the same prison, the four drainage pits frequently overflow, creating a major health hazard for both inmates and prison staff. Another visitor reporter that the Colombo prisons are so hot and humid that prisoners take off their shirts to avoid getting rashes.
There is a chronic shortage of doctors and nurses at all prisons, and prisoners must endure long waits to receive medical care. The problem is exacerbated by favourtism — government officials often call the prison medical unit to request hospital beds for their friends, while sicker patients have to lie on the prison floor. Due to a shortage of female nurses, the medical situation is especially dire for female prisoners.
Contributing to the poor health conditions is the rancid food served to prisoners. According to a man currently in prison, who asked that his name be withheld, prison wardens take all of the best food for themselves and serve the inmates watery meals that have little nutritional value. The prisoner also claimed that wealthy inmates routinely give bribes to receive private rooms and special treatment.
To improve this miserable situation, the Minister of Justice has requested that the Ministry of Health make more nurses, general practitioners, and specialists available to the country’s prisons. The Director General of Medical Services has been asked to visit the prisons personally to see the poor conditions, according to a member of the Board of Visitors.
The Minister of Justice says that solving the prison crisis won’t be a 24-hour miracle. And in the aftermath of a war and an economic recession, the prisons probably won’t be a priority for higher funding. Fortunately, not all of the reforms recommended by the Board of Visitors require extra resources.
According to the Board, reducing prison overcrowding should be the Ministry of Justice’s top priority. Most of the problems in the prison system — poor health conditions, intermingling of prisoners, interminable time spent in remand — stem directly from overcrowding, and could be remedied by more sensible practices by the police and courts.
“Magistrates must make the difficult decision to decide who goes into remand and who doesn’t,” Board of Visitors member Ismail said. “We must not send minor criminals to prison. Right now, if you don’t pay a Rs. 100 fine you are imprisoned. The cost to the state to imprison you is far more than the cost of the fine! There’s no point in sending that person to prison.”
Instead of jail time, Ismail said that prisoners convicted of minor offences should be sentenced to community service, as is done in many other countries.
“If the person is forced to maintain a street or sweep the sidewalk, that is a greater deterrent than prison,” Ismail said. “If you got to prison, you can lie and say you were in London on holiday. But everybody will know the minute you are assigned community service, and your dignity will be affected.”
Likewise, for traffic violations like drinking and driving, Ismail recommends sentencing people to take traffic lessons instead of paying a fine. The institutions necessary to implement these reforms already exist, and just need to be activated, according to Ismail. He said that magistrates would think twice about remanding prisoners if they were more familiar with the prisons.
“These magistrates must be forced to visit a prison at least once a month to see what the conditions are inside,” he said.
Another member of the Board of Visitors blamed the police for allowing suspects to languish in prison.
“The amount of crime in this country has increased, and the training the police are given is inadequate,” he said. “There have been cases where people have been in remand for years. That’s not the fault of the prison authority, that’s the fault of the police who are unable to finish investigating the case.”
A report on torture issued in August by UN Special Rapporteur Manfred Nowak cited Sri Lanka as having one of the worst prison systems in the world, along with countries like Uruguay, Nigeria, and Iran. The report named Sri Lanka as being one of the countries where detainees must sleep in shifts while staying in pre-trial facilities. It also stated that corporal punishment was routinely used at Bogambara Prison in Kandy as a punishment for breaking rules or complaining about bad conditions.
The Board of Visitors, which consists of six members working on a voluntary basis, remains optimistic about the possibilities for turning around the country’s notorious prison system. So far they have only visited the prisons in Colombo, but there are plans to send several members to prisons in different parts of the country.
“The situation in the prisons is not what it should be,” said one member of the Board. “But, for the first time in many years, steps are being taken to address the problem.”