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Sunday, 6 February 2011

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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 purpose.

"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 improvement. Why?

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 three centres.

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 very low.

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 are!

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 rehabilitation program?

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 priority.

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 rehabilitating prisoners?

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 officers.

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 term process.

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 officers themselves.

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 this happened.

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 prisons.

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 again.

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 family.

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 neglected?

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.

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