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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1584

Lalin’s Coloumn:Prison service for Prison staff - Riot or No

By Major General (Retired) Lalin Fernando

The Prison’s Commissioner Kodipilly incorrectly given a military rank in a Sunday paper, is reeling from a unprecedented and atrocious management blunder that led to the riot and subsequent carnage that occurred last week end (10/11 Nov 12) at Welikada Prison. Twenty seven (27) mainly prisoners were amongst the dead. Over 40 were injured.Lalin_Fernando_5.jpg

Some prisoners armed after being tear gassed in their cells, fired with weapons looted from the armoury. Some army and STF personnel were also wounded.

Over whelmed by the consequences of his decision to call in the STF to conduct a search for contraband, possibly also suffering from remorse and stress, he, a bit late in the day, has denied that he had suggested that the Ministry of Defence (MOD) take over the Prisons. (But he has not refuted the military rank given him). Does it mean that he does not want to declare Kodipilly’s war on the remaining prisoners?

There were other prison riots. In 1983, 56 prisoners, all terrorist suspects, were killed. The Prison chief then did not ask for the army that came to quell the riot to take over subsequently. In the 1988 prison riot there were no deaths.

If the Commissioner meant that the Army should be made available to him he is only running himself out deservedly or otherwise. Or did he mean he needs military troops under his command? It now appears he has no intention of becoming a brevet colonel too. Or does he want the army to take over the Prisons?

Whatever he believes the Army can do well (and it does do many things outside of military combat very well), everyone needs to know running a civil prison is not for the army. That is a job Commissioners have done with their own staff since the prison service began in 1802. There was a time about 100 years ago when the Police was involved for a short period in running the Prisons.

True the Army has expertise in correctional facilities but that is strictly in dealing with soldier miscreants who volunteered to serve the country and will continue to do so after correction. They are totally unlike the unfortunate creatures that the judicial system throws into Prison. There is an unbridgeable gap between the ethos of a soldier and the motivation of a prison official. Did the Commissioner not know?

All those who opt to join the Prison service at whatever level or from where ever must necessarily be people who have made a career choice to deprive human beings of their freedom or liberty. In short to keep them caged. This is not an inspiring or happy profession smacking of a bit of sadism probably but some accept it of their own volition. It used to have an executioner(s) on its staff as well. If morale in the prison service is low it should not surprise even the Commissioner as it is a part of the culture and conditions of the service. There is no way soldiers can be used to do such work.

The Commissioner should instead of hoping for a military reprieve tackle the institutional weaknesses of the Prison service. He must not believe that the weaknesses and failures of the service and the lack of discipline, courage and the weak character of his minions when facing up to the more recalcitrant prisoners can be hidden or mended by bringing in the army.

The concern of the Commissioner is the prisoner. The stated SL prison service vision is despite its burgeoning frailties, to become the best in Asia. In real fact the prisons are chaotic, overcrowded and inhumane making a mockery of the huge notice on its front walls that state “Prisoners are also humans”? What happened on 10/11 Nov 12 raises doubts as to whether the prison service cares a damn for these ‘humans’. Visions should not be mistaken for dreams, especially as this one literally became a national nightmare. That notice should be painted inside the prison walls to convince the prisoners if at all.

The Commissioner must know that prison staff have been, are and will be compromised as long as he and his senior managers do not have the guts and character to correct them. Contraband including drugs and mobile phones are smuggled in with their help. The problem for him is to punish the wrong doers. Some need to be sacked. Or he must quit. He must not expect the army to bail him out by cleaning out the muck that exists.

There were 30,933 prisoners country wide in prisons with accommodation facilities just enough for 11,000 in 2011. Welikada prison was 220 % over crowded (males), the second highest in the world. Female overcrowding was nearly 400 % too.

Fifty percent of the prisoners are there because they could not pay their fines. If they, first time minor offenders and drug addicts can be housed elsewhere there will be less overcrowding and better control. Perhaps a higher level of humanity could also prevail.

Petty offenders are kept in cells with sex offenders and perpetrators of heinous crimes. No wonder that the death toll was both extra ordinarily high. It included offenders like one of the two 28 year old ‘ pushers’ of Kalubowila slum land who left behind a destitute wife with 2 small children, one of whom is disabled.

UNICEF reported that the women’s cells with rat infested open drains by its side, house 650 in a room meant for 150, while 75 women share 2 toilets. (25 June 2011 figures).The SL Prisons are more likely to be the shame of Asia than the best. Fortunately for the women prisoners, Colombo Rotarians (District 3220) have undertaken to build 10 bathrooms for the women at a cost of Rs 2 million.

The Prisons’ mission is supposedly to provide for the custody, care and rehabilitation (rehab) of prisoners. This despite the burgeoning frailties of its own staff. While the Prisons generously welcome all who need to be kept in custody, the way it provides care when looking for cell phones leaves little to the imagination. The numbers returning to prison shows that rehab is a mirage. Could it be because there is hardly any sincere, well planned and determined attempt to ‘rehabilitate’?

Almost all prisoners come from desperately poor families. They are mired in an increasingly top down lawless society. They are imprisoned most often because unlike powerful and rich criminals they cannot hire good lawyers. The weight of the judicial system is stacked against them. The standard of conduct of the police, courts, witnesses, lawyers and often even the judges are not exemplary.Ex CJ Sarath Silva is a star witness to the last according to Basil Fernando and Victor Ivan amongst others.

Prisoners are confined to degrading and demoralizing living conditions. Some after languishing for decades without being brought to trial and others ordered to be set free by the courts or after their jail sentence has been fully served, remain confined close to a life time due to extreme administrative aberrations. These are Bastille like developments, repercussions of which if unchecked may one day boomerang on society .Prisoners are not only held in contempt and broken if need be but are also exploited shamelessly. Female relatives who visit them know. The cramped visiting room is a small edition of the tower of Babel, frustrating both the prisoner and the visitor. The prisoner guard relationship is generally one of mutual suspicion, mistrust and in some cases hate. While society’s wretched face the full force of the ‘majesty’ if not the tragedy of the law, fortunate and favoured murderers, fraudsters of billions of rupees and drug barons are not prosecuted, allowed bail or pardoned and if ever convicted given feather weight sentences .There even used to be ‘star class’ prisoners who were given ‘star class’ treatment!

Few if any jailors retire early. Consequently a lot of the nation’s worst criminal activity is well patronized and controlled from prison. There was also a time when convicts were rented out to commit untraceable, mainly violent, crime. A rank outsider who is drafted in as Commissioner doesn’t stand chance in hell to survive.

Soldiers are trained at considerable cost to protect the country even at the cost of their lives and not to keep criminals imprisoned. Getting them to do jailors work will destroy their morale and spirit. Whatever their discipline, experience and training would have been, they will soon degenerate into being jail guards in different uniforms. They will soon be unfit to do their primary duty even if they are not corrupted meanwhile.

An answer to controlling any further riots in prisons could be to establish a special quick reaction force. Its people must be from outside of the prison service, be vetted carefully and trained by specialists. They will act according to SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). They should be lightly armed, equipped for and trained in search procedures even under duress, counter riot drills and counter hostage taking situations, be able to do helicopter descents and be proficient at close quarter combat. They could be trained by the Army but must be under the Prison service. They will be familiar with the layout of each prison, the nature of the staff and the behavior of its inmates. CCTV and advanced security technology should be provided too.

Of course there has to be major dust up of the administration of the Prison service too. The Prison Ordinance should be revised too. Leadership and fitness training at all levels amongst other subjects is needed. If such developments do not take place soon further chaos and calamities will follow.

Twenty seven lives in the care and custody of the state were lost in the search for mobile phones and concealed drugs. The Commissioner has a hard choice. To be or not to be. Who will decide? It is also clear that there will be no attempts to riot and escape from the Welikada or other prisons for a long time.

- Asian Tribune -

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