Prison system needs streamlining - Prisons chief
Sri Lanka's prisons, which are still considered dens for illegal
activities, face the difficulty in rehabilitating its inmates fully.
Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Vidanage R. de Silva
Though the government spends over Rs. 3.8 billion annually to reform
the prisoners, there are serious doubts that the efforts have served the
"I am not satisfied with the existing system and I am struggling to
change it. I need 100 percent support from the officers as well as the
others who are involved in prisons affairs", Prisons Commissioner
General Maj. General (retired) Vidanage Ratnasiri de Silva, who looks
after over 26,012 prisoners said.
In an interview with the Sunday Observer he said a serious thought
has to be given to eradicate the drug menace in prisons, which prompt
the majority of drug users to 'return enter' the prisons.
"The Majority of those who return to prisons are drug addicts and
their percentage is very high. Some of the criminals are using the
prisons as safe heavens to carry out their illegal activities. But the
majority, don't want to return to prisons", the former Maj. General who
tries to be tough with the officers who have a hand in the illegal
activities in the prisons, said.
Confirming that there are no 'VIP' treatments or special cells for
any prisoners under his wing, he said he would take tough action against
his officers who give special treatment to prisoners.
Maj. Gen. de Silva said the sudden raids to nab drug dealers and
addicts and also those who posses illegal items like mobile phones in
prisons had upset some of the 'criminals' and also some prison officials
who create unrest in prisons recently.
Striving to pursue his goal that 'no prisoner returns to prisons' he
said the Department needed to modernize the prison system to train
prison officials here and abroad, install modern equipment to make
detections to prevent illegal stuff entering into prisons and also to
introduce job-oriented vocational training for prisoners to make the
rehabilitation process effective.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: The Prison system still in the era of 1940s without
A: Yes, it is correct to a certain extent. But at different
stages reforms had been introduced. Some of them were effective measures
but still there is the need for further reforms to the prison system.
The most important area is the rehabilitation of prisoners. The drug
menace has crept into the society in 1970s and as a result there is a
large number of prisoners convicted of drug offences.
Secondly those prisoners who were released from prisons are committed
to prisons for the same offence or another. This needs to be looked into
seriously. We are establishing separate prisons the rehabilitation
centres, for drug offenders in Weerawila, Pallekele and Taldena.
Over 35 percent of prison inmates are drug offenders. Fairly a large
number of convicts is imprisoned for drug offences. The accommodation in
prisons, is limited and by establishing new rehabilitation centres, we
hope to ease congestion.
Q: Will there be facilities in these centres to accommodate
all prisoners convicted for drug offences?
A: No, we will categorise them and a selected group will be
rehabilitated. A large number of prisoners will be accommodated in these
Q: In other countries research on prisoners are conducted but
in Sri Lanka the only research was done during Former Prison
Commissioner, Delgoda's tenure. Why?
A: I agree research is an important area basically to get to
know about the behavioral pattern of the prisoners in and out of the
prisons. We don't have control over them when they are released from
prison. We have not carried out any studies as yet.
Q: The Centre for Rehabilitation, Training and Correction
under the Department of Prisons is there to carry out research. Why is
there no such research conducted?
A: Compared to training centres in other countries, this
organisation is not yet developed and lacks modern facilities. The
Department has drawn its attention on the need for research and the
senior departmental officials will carry out research on the behavioral
patterns of prison inmates and other areas. We will complete the
training of officials before end of 2012. The Superintendents of Prisons
will be trained to conduct research.
Q: Prisoners who have been released complain that the
vocational training given by the Department is outdated and as such they
cannot find suitable jobs to suit their training. Will the Prisons
department introduce job oriented courses such as IT for them?
A: I agree with you somewhat. Vocational training on
carpentry, which has a high demand is not outdated. There are practical
problems for us to introduce new courses. We lack modern equipment which
is not available due to lack of funds. We have to introduce IT courses
in prisons. In certain prisons, especially at the Ambepussa one, motor
mechanism, had been introduced for young prisoners an year ago. These
prisoners who are between 16 to 22 years, are receiving training on
motor mechanism, house wiring and plumbing.
Gradually we are phasing out the out-dated courses and introduce the
job-oriented into the system. We can not effect these changes overnight
as we need funds to obtain modern equipment.
Another problem in introducing modern courses is poor literacy rate
among the prisoners. It is an unfortunate situation. Majority of them
are from disturbed family backgrounds and their education level is also
It is difficult to train them as their literacy rate is very low. But
we should have a selected group for further training. Other reason is
that the majority of them have passed the age of learning.
Similarly the Majority of the convicted and remand prisoners are from
disturbed families and some of them even don't know who their parents
Q: While the department has decided to setup new centres for
drug offenders, the rehabilitation centre 'Navoda' at Pallekele has been
closed and also a part of the Boosa camp, where there was a successful
rehabilitation centre, was given to the police reducing its capacity to
200. In these circumstances, how can you implement a successful
A: I don't agree that rehabilitation of prisoners in these
centres has ceased. The Pallekele is a gazetted centre and at the moment
drug addicts are sheltered there while the rehabilitation work will be
taken over by the Dangerous Drug Control Board. They are at present
formulating the strategies and to the rehabilitation of drug-users will
be launched soon. The Department is carrying out the basic programs on
meditation, vocational training and education.
The Boosa camp has been released to the Terrorist Investigation
Department of the Police on a directive of Ministry of Defence to
accommodate ex-LTTE cadres who are under rehabilitation. There are five
wards accomodating over 350 inmates.
The rehabilitation program is very effective and the inmates are also
very satisfied with the program. The prison officers are also undergoing
meditation at the centre. There is "fresh request from the Ministry of
Defence to hand over some of the buildings to the TID and I have sent my
recommendation to the Ministry of Justice.
When there is a national requirement it will always be given
In the rehabilitation of drug offenders, our target group is the
first time users. The seasoned drug addicts have been found to be very
difficult to rehabilitate.
Q: The prison system is based on Custody, Care and Correction
but do you think that the rehabilitation aspect is truly met due to
behaviour of the prison officials, who can play a vital role in
A: Yes, I agree that they can play a major role in
rehabilitating prisoners. But we should have a system to train
specialized officers to handle prisoners. Here in the prison department
a single officer cannot handle everything. We should have separate set
of officers who only handles rehabilitation.
The officers do their utmost to rehabilitate the prisoners. There is
room for further improvement. Training of officers for day-to-day
activities and training them for rehabilitation are two different areas.
First, you have to understand that we are working under without
resources. We are short of 1063 officers. The number of prisons and
court houses has increased. The prison population too has gone up. We
are saddled with additional responsibilities while the officer cadre
remains low. Each and every officer bears an additional burden.
Q: The Department has introduced meditation programs for
prisoners and how successful are these programs?
A: We have a number of success stories. There are lots of NGOs
working with us. At Welikada we had a meditation program and we could
not accommodate all inmates as the demand for such programs is high.
Some prisoners have realised that they have committed a crime and
therefore they want to correct themselves. Space has become a problem
when we select participants for these programs.
Q: There are allegations that some officers want the prisoners
to remain as prisoners for their own benefit. They discourage prisoners
attending meditation programs by harassing them?
A: I cannot support this allegation. There may be some such
What is important is the need to change the prison culture. I have to
educate my officers and train them. I am at present in the process of
making my recommendations on the importance of commencing training
programs for the junior and senior officers. It is going to be a long
They need a better exposure. Excepting a very few high ranking
officers, no one has gone for foreign training. At the moment they put
into practice what they have learnt themselves here. They continue to do
what their seminars had introduced. This has to be corrected and then
only we can hope for change in the prison culture. A more humane touch
in handling prisoners is necessary!
Q: What happened in the Anuradhapura prison where the deaths
of two prisoners were reported?
A: We have transferred some senior officers to prisons.
Anuradhapura is one such prison where I have appointed a very efficient,
hard working and honest officer from Mahara as the Superintendent.
Without studying the situation there he made some significant changes.
As a result of these changes unwanted things going into the prison was
stopped and this affected some interested parties. Their network has
been disrupted. I suspect there could be support from the prison
Then there was a hunger strike by 20 inmates against a Court order on
given bail. Next day 50 prisoners joined them. I was told that they
joined the group in protest against the administration, especially the
SP. I sent a senior commissioner to Anuradhapura. The demands of the
strikers were as simple as a good water and food. The official had
negotiated with the protestors. But all of a sudden the situation
changed drastically and I still can't find a reasonable cause as to why
Investigation are continuing and I suspect there had been some
involvement of an interested party. I have appointed a team of officers
to investigate the incident .
It was very unfortunate that the protesters had damaged the library,
dispensary and the kitchen to the tune of around Rs. two million. Based
on the findings of the team I will take necessary steps.
Q: As you said the officials have helped the illegal things to
be brought into the prison. How do you plan to control such activities
in all prisons?
A: It is a very challenging task as far as the prison
administration is concerned. For me to administer the prisons
effectively I should have 100 faithful officers. Of course, we have to
carry out modernization in the prison system. Still we are doing manual
check-ups, which is very difficult. For example, the daily visits are
over 350 to 400 but a few prison officers are checking all of them. We
have to go for the latest technology and on the other hand it is rather
inhuman for us to tell even the inmates to remove their clothes for the
full body check up. It is time for us to install scanners. This issue
has been discussed at many forums and the authorities are aware of the
need. But still we don't have adequate funds.
Q: When a prisoner gets into the premises of the Welikada
prison there is the Buddha statue and the bo-tree that will make his
mindset calm but as soon as he enters the gloomy, unclean and over
crowded wards, it will disturbed his mind. Will this environment be
changed in future to ensure a good rehabilitation process?
A: The Welikada prison was established in 1844, Bogambara 1874
and Mahara 1876 and they are very old buildings, which are very
difficult to renovate.
A new prison is being built at Pallekele, Kandy to which the
Bogambara prison will be shifted in 2014. Not only the Welikada prison
but most of the remand prisons in the southern belt have to be shifted
as they occupy the lands of high commercial value. We have to move yet
we can't move as far as all Courts houses are in towns. We have to be in
close proximity to Courts to facilitate the transport of the prison
inmates to court houses. However, we have long-term plans to shift these
Q: It is reported that over 48 percent of those who were
released have been recommitted to prisons. Where does the fault lies?
A: We are accused for this problem. Yes, to some extent the
Prison Department should also bear responsibility for this situation.
The most important factor is that once a prisoners is released he will
go back to his same old environment where in the root cause lies. The
Department is doing its best to rehabilitate but until the root cause is
addressed this problem will continue to remain.
Q: Over 46 percent of the children become school drop-outs and
40 percent of wives of the prisoners are vulnerable to various illegal
activities. Are there any programs to help the prisoners families?
A: It is beyond the mandate but still we have an obligation to
look after them. We are working very closely with the divisional
secretaries to give maximum assistance to these vulnerable groups. This
issue had been addressed every now and then. We also have our own
limitations and this matter has to be looked into by the government.
Q: What is the percentage of rehabilitated prisoners?
A: It is difficult to provide an answer as I don't have the
statistics with me. But majority of those who are recommitted to prisons
are drug addicts and their percentage is very high. The number of
prisoners goes up mainly because of them. Some of the criminals are
using the prisons as safe havens to carry out their illegal activities.
But the majority of prisoners don't want to come back to the prison
Q: Prison officers can play a vital role in rehabilitating
prisoners. How humane are your officers towards prisoners?
A: All officers are committed to their duties except for a
handful of officers who have different motives. They are very concerned
about the prisoners and their welfare.
Q: Some people have alleged that there is an escalation of
incidents in prisons compared to previous administration. Why?
A: I don't agree that there is an escalation of incidents but
some such incidents are due to tough action taken by the administration
to control illegal activities in prisons. Such actions have prompted
certain elements to disturb the smooth functioning of the prison system.
There are specific reasons for each incident. This is common to all
prisons. The incident in Anuradhapura prison took place due to
involvement of outside parties. The incident took place in Welikada last
November it was a miscommunication about the search operation which was
carried out in all the prisons.
The Moratuwa incident was due to the fault of the officer concerned.
They have opened fire at the escapee and the two officers, a Jailor
and a Jailor Guard - have opened fire. At the time of firing there had
not been any one between the firer and the escapee. I am not trying to
justify the incident but the Police had found the bullet in the body of
the deceased person and it was a ricocheted bullet. It was a very
unfortunate incident and if there was a person in between, the
officers-who are very responsible officers-would not have fired. It was
an escapee and a life of another person. They know that they could
apprehend the escapee later and as such they would have abandoned their
mission to save the life of the person. They are trained officers. We
took over the full funeral expenses and handed over Rs. 100,000 for the
Q: Are you satisfied with the present prison system?
A: No I am not satisfied with the existing system and I am
struggling to change it. I need 100 percent support of the officers and
others who are involved in prison matters.
Q: Will there be a reward system for the officers?
A: Yes, the system is in place which awards them rewards for
their performances outside the prisons. I have taken tough action
against the corrupt officers whenever I have evidence. I have taken
action against them irrespective of their ranks.
Q: There are allegations that the VIP treatment is given to
some notorious criminals. Do you have special luxury wards in prisons?
A: This is only an allegation. I have visited almost all the
prisons in the country. First they must go and see the accommodation
available before accusing us. If any officer is found giving
preferential treatment to any prisoner, I will not hesitate to take
action against him. I say with responsibility that there are no such
special cells in any of the prisons in the country.
Q: Prisoners complain they don't have enough uniforms and they
wear cloths brought from home. Why is this basic need of the prisoners
A: Yes, this is due to procedural problems. We have to get
'yarn', which is a special material for stitching prison uniforms
(Jumpers). We have decided to go for a new material before the end of
2011 and this problem will then be eased.