Photo courtesy of The Hindu

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka conducted the first national study on the treatment and conditions of prisoners from February 2018 to January 2020. The findings of the report are very relevant, especially in light of the prisoner unrest and violence that took place at Anuradhapura Remand Prison in April 2020 and last week at Mahara Closed Prison in the context of the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

The study was conducted over two years, with a team of up to 33 persons. Data was gathered through inspections of 20 prisons under the Department of Prisons, questionnaires and interviews with over 3,000 prisoners and prison officers. Interviews were also undertaken with senior officers of the Prison Headquarters and key public officials, including the then Minister of Justice and Prison Reforms and the Attorney General.

Treatment and conditions of prisoners

According to the Department of Prison 2020 Statistics, prisons are overcrowded to 107 per cent of their capacity. In line with the statistic, the study found that prisoners live in severely overcrowded accommodation and even take turns to sleep at night or sleep in the toilet due to the lack of space. Prisoners described ‘’salmon packing’’,  which refers to the method by which large numbers of prisoners are placed on their sides one after the other, front to back, against the length of the ward and required to sleep in that position.

Prison buildings are outdated and dilapidated with crumbling structures and leaking roofs, which pose a constant risk to prisoners’ lives. These structures are highly susceptible to natural disasters and there are no disaster management protocols in place to deal with emergency situations. In the case of a natural disaster, elderly prisoners and prisoners with disabilities are high risk groups because they will not be able to take any measures to protect themselves.

Due to the level of overcrowding, sanitation facilities and water supplies are inadequate to meet the needs of prisoners. At night, prisoners are locked in their cells and do not have access to the toilet that is outside the cell. As a result, prisoners have to use plastic bags or buckets to relieve themselves and multiple prisoners in a single cell have to use the same bucket or bag. An inmate from Welikada prison describes it. ‘“If we want to pass faecal matter at night, we do it into a shopping bag and tie it. In the morning, we throw it into the toilet. We have to bear the bad smell overnight. In the early days, there were 11 people in my room.”

Due to poor hygiene and sanitation, a large number of pests such as rats, flies and mosquitoes are found in prisons. The food served was observed to be unappetising and even spoilt at times. Words such as bad, watery, no salt or chili and smelly were often used to describe the food. The kitchen floors were always damp and muddy with an abundance of flies swarming around as well as cats and rats. In many kitchens, cooked food is kept without being covered, which allows flies, rats and dirt particles to get into the food.

The prison doesn’t have a budgetary allocation for the distribution of cleaning agents to keep the facilities clean, or personal provisions such as soap and sanitary pads. Since prisoners are therefore dependent on their families to provide them with personal items, prisoners who don’t receive family visits due to their families living long distances from the prison or lack of close family do not have access to such basic provisions. Foreign nationals reported that they undertake personal tasks such as washing clothes and dishes for local inmates in return for provisions.

Prisoners cannot maintain contact with their families and legal representatives because telephone facilities are not available in any prison except for Welikada prison. The only way to communicate with the outside world is through letters or personal visits. As one inmate said, ‘’We sit and worry the rest of the day. I worry about my family and how my children are not talking to me’’ when referring to the anguish they feel due to prolonged separation from their families. Furthermore, due to the large volume of family visits that are conducted daily, each visit does not last more than a few minutes and the crowded visitors room is not conducive to familial bonding and conversations. Without maintaining contact with the outside world and family relationships during their time in prison, prisoners will struggle to reintegrate into society after they are released.

The state of prison healthcare is far below the required standard. Prison hospitals do not receive specialised medicine and equipment and prisoners have to be transferred to external hospitals for medical treatment. Since the transfer of prisoners to courts is prioritised over transferring to hospitals, and there is a shortage of buses and prison officers to escort prisoners, prisoners can miss their clinic appointments. Inmates from Welikada mentioned instances where they would be taken to the prison bus and made to wait in the bus all day to be taken to the hospital, only to be returned to their wards at the end of the day.

Doctors in prison hospitals were said to discriminate against prisoners based on the offences they are suspected or convicted for, which discourages prisoners from seeking medical treatment. Prisoners admitted to having suicidal thoughts and the tendency to engage in self-harm, indicating a high level of mental distress behind bars. In the study, 60 per cent  of male prisoners and 55 per cent of female prisoners reported they experienced depression, anxiety and sadness to a level where it interferes with their daily tasks and everyday functioning.

Rehabilitation in prison

Although the rehabilitation of offenders is the primary stated objective of the Department of Prisons, the present system of rehabilitation barely fulfils the stated objective. For instance, prisoners are mostly involved in labour intensive and manual tasks throughout the duration of their sentence, and do not have the chance to continue disrupted public education or learn employable skills. Convicted inmates are paid Rs. 1 per day for engaging in prison work because payments have not been revised for decades. As a result, prisoners are released back into society without the means to earn a livelihood, suffer the stigma of imprisonment and are unable to reintegrate into society. This obstructs effective reintegration and creates conditions ripe for reoffending. As an inmate described it, “Wrongdoers are imprisoned to turn them into good people. Nothing like that happens inside this prison. People who are imprisoned for committing one wrongful act, go out learning ten other wrongful acts.”

The system for early release from prison is dysfunctional and does not incentivise prisoners to reform themselves with the promise of early release on license, partly due to the lack of a standardised system of assessing prisoners’ suitability for early release. The process of commuting prisoners serving death, life and long term sentences is also ad hoc and lacks transparency, which leads to the risk of arbitrary decisions by the President in the release and commutation of prisoners. Long term incarceration without the prospect of early release as a reward for rehabilitation is only a burden on the overburdened prison system and the taxpayer and serves no benefit to the prevention of crime in society.

Vulnerable categories of prisoners

The study found that prisoners on death row and prisoners with life sentences are more vulnerable because they are held in prison indeterminately without an end date to their sentence. Prisoners on death row are only allowed thirty minutes out of their cells and wards each day and the lack of meaningful daily activity coupled with distance from their families impacts adversely on their mental and physical health. Death row prisoners feel they have nothing to lose, i.e., no incentive to behave well in prison because they are already serving indeterminate sentences and cannot be punished further.

The prison study makes a strong case for the abolishment of the death penalty in Sri Lanka because long term imprisonment of death row prisoners in such living conditions constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment. The report highlights the experiences of the legal proceedings that death row prisoners described and points to a number of shortcomings in the criminal justice system. This reinforces the idea that persons should not be awarded irreversible sanctions because no justice system in the world is infallible.

Prisoners detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) have spent a prolonged period of time in remand. It was reported that 11 PTA prisoners have spent 10 to 15 years in remand while 29 prisoners have spent 5 to 10 years in remand. They are vulnerable to the constant risk of ill treatment and discrimination from other prisoners and prison officers depending on changes in the political climate. PTA prisoners reported they were subjected to torture during the period they were held on Detention Orders following their arrest and were forced to sign confessions, which form the main evidence against many of them.

Young prisoners between the ages of 15 and 17 who are classed as children can be found in adult prison facilities, often held in wards with persons aged up to 22 years. The stigma of imprisonment at a young age and the disruption to their education and personal lives might damage their life opportunities. Thus the cycle of stigma, imprisonment and crime begins by imprisoning young people instead of opting for non-custodial measures.

Foreign national prisoners are vulnerable because they do not know the local language and are completely disconnected from their families. The process of repatriating foreign prisoners is inherently bureaucratic and contact with their consular representatives is limited due to the lack of means of communication.

The prison system does not accommodate the specific needs of women in detention, such as the provision of sanitary napkins, and offers limited opportunities for rehabilitation beyond stereotypical programmes such as sewing and craft making.

Use of violence

The use of violence by prison officers for the maintenance of discipline and order was reported from all prisons visited. Prisoners said they are beaten using bats and batons and subjected to verbal abuse. An inmate stated that ‘’they treat us like dogs’’. Another inmate, describing an instance of violence being perpetrated on prisoners stated, “If someone is sleeping at the time they call us to line up in the morning and if he comes while wearing his shirt on the way, officers hit him with a stick leaving marks on his back”. Mahara prison was reported as one of the worst in terms of prisoners being subjected to violence, and the words ‘’slaughterhouse’’ and ‘’punishment prison’’ were used to describe it.

It was said that disciplinary action is not taken against responsible prison officers, which enables a culture of violence and impunity. The lack of effective external and independent oversight of prisons prevents inmates from complaining against prison officers due to fear of reprisals. The use of violence to control distressed prisoners suffering withdrawal symptoms from alcohol and drugs appeared to be a factor that caused deaths in prison, along with the delays in transferring prisoners for emergency medical treatment at night time.

Working conditions of prison officers

Interviews with prison staff revealed that the high risk work environment in which they work, the minimal salaries they are paid and the high levels of burn out and severe psychosocial distress they experience exacerbate the use of physical violence and verbal abuse. A study conducted by the Ministry of Health on levels of stress experienced by prison officers revealed 31.1 per cent of prison officers suffer from burnout, 28.6 per cent suffered from mental exhaustion and 37.8 per cent suffered from diminished personal accomplishment.

At every prison the administration is severely short staffed and therefore prison officers have to undertake multiple tasks and work overtime, often without extra remuneration. A prison officer stated, ‘“Officers can’t go on leave. Officers have to do night duty today and go on court escorts the following morning. We work under immense pressure. It’s humanly impossible to handle this and not be angry or stressed – you have to be a saint.” Therefore changes have to be made to their salary scale to reflect the high risk nature of their work and any attempts to reimagine the prison system must include ensuring that the staff are committed to the stated objective of rehabilitation.

The criminal justice process

The penal system cannot be reimagined without key reforms to the criminal justice process. Prisoners reported the use of violence in police custody to obtain confessions and gather evidence after the arrest. One of the reasons for the protracted legal process is due to delays in the police investigation and on the part of the Attorney General’s Department and Government Analyst Department, particularly in relation to people arrested on minor drugs charges who spend many months in remand for offences that carry small fines as penalties. This is exacerbated by the lack of legal aid and directly contributes to overcrowding in prisons.

Another factor that could reduce  overcrowding of prisons is the utilisation of non-custodial alternatives to punishment, such as community-based correction, whereby people who have committed minor crimes and young people can be diverted away from the prison system. This reduces the burden on the prison system and also reduces the negative costs of incarceration on detainees, including loss of income, distance from family and the stigma of imprisonment. Women with children under the age of five and pregnant women who have committed minor offences can also be diverted away from imprisonment through the use of non-custodial measures to avoid their children from being held behind bars with their mothers.

People from disadvantaged backgrounds are further marginalised by the justice system. Rather than prevention of crime, the prison system pushes people into a cycle of poverty and marginalisation. The findings of the report strongly suggest that the prison system needs to be reimagined to ensure a safer society. As highlighted in the report, any action to reform the criminal justice and correctional process should be undertaken bearing in mind that all citizens, despite their conduct or crime committed, are entitled to be treated with dignity and humanity.