Prisons overcrowding and consequences | Daily News

Prisons overcrowding and consequences

According to a news report, our prisons are bursting at the seams and it has come to a stage where no more inmates can be accommodated unless new prisons or detention centres are built -a proposition which the Government has rejected. Prison overcrowding has been a perennial problem and so far only lip service has been paid to overcome the problem. While our prisons can collectively accommodate 13,200 prisoners this limit has now exceeded 24,000 - an increase of 180 percent. Of these 15,000 happen to be suspects held for various crimes and felonies -7,500 of them taken in connection with drug related offences. According to the report, in some prisons the number of inmates has exceeded by 300 percent of the available space. A spokesman for the Prisons said that this year's food bill of the prisons will exceed Rs.4.7 billion. What alternative do the authorities have to accommodate more prisoners considering that the Government had ruled out building more prisons? The problem can only get aggravated with the rising incidents of crime across the country.

One thought that Aragalaya activist Damitha Abeyratne was exaggerating when she told the media following her release from prison after being granted bail that prisoners were forced to have their meals in proximity to overflowing toilets. However, going by the latest report on the conditions of prisons this could not be further from the truth. Even former MP Ranjan Ramanayake continuously spoke of the deplorable conditions of prisons and the privations suffered by the prisoners.

Our prisoners appear to be held under the most inhuman and appalling conditions and we have already witnessed two major prison riots in recent times that even resulted in deaths, which no doubt had stemmed from this unbearable prison life which the inmates have been forced to endure. It will only be a matter of time before another major upheaval in our prisons breaks out, with reports that the food ration of prisoners too has been curtailed as in our hospitals due to costly prices of food and/or their unavailability. Prisoners being offenders and lawbreakers are a volatile lot and are bent towards violence due to their very nature. Hence, the authorities should take immediate steps to alleviate the conditions in our prisons without allowing things to get out of hand.

Of course, central to the whole problem is overcrowding. Therefore, if a solution is to be found to ease the congestion in the prisons half the battle would be won and the Government will not be compelled to spend billions of rupees to feed prison inmates which the ailing economy could ill afford at this stage. For starters, means should be explored for the release of first time offenders not involved in serious crime. On the other hand, considering that a bulk of our prisoners are behind bars due to their inability to pay fines, this is another area where the authorities should look into to ease the congestion by releasing such offenders who are not held for serious offences. The pardoning of prisoners for good behaviour or those held for minor offences as is presently done on special occasions such as Vesak, Poson or Independence Day should be made more frequent as a means of easing overcrowding.

Changes should be evolved in altering the concept of prisons and prisoners ingrained in the public mind as punishment centres to that of a less harsh definition giving the inmates a more human face. In certain developed countries prisoners are not held in a confined space but allowed more leeway to interact with relatives and loved ones in an open environment. We too should think of a way to establish the “Open Prison” concept that would make prisoners freer and less demonized and acceptable to the public not as offenders or criminals but victims of human frailties who have strayed from the righteous path. Ideally prisoners taken in for minor offences should be united with their families for brief periods before being taken back. This way their children and family members would not be ostracized by society or castigated as jailbirds, which would affect the future of their children.

Of course the prisons themselves should undergo radical reform. Needless to say, our prisons today have become dens of corruption and sleaze. For some inmates prison has become a home away from home acquiring privileges courtesy of corrupt prisons officials. One recalls a report, sometime ago, where a notorious underworld kingpin who was deported from a Middle Eastern country and perished in a clash with the local police had communicated from abroad via mobile phone with a local drug lord behind bars in Welikada. It was obvious that prison officials had been in the pay of the drug lord concerned and had been no hindrance to the latter to conduct his underworld activities from within the prison walls. It should be the priority of whoever takes charge of the subject of prisons to effect the due changes and rid the prison system of the sleaze and corruption, particularly the subterranean life that is part and parcel of our prisons.

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