Inmates having suicidal thoughts due to deplorable prison conditions

By Easwaran Rutnam

A study conducted by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has revealed the deplorable conditions in local prisons, mainly because of overcrowding and an archaic system.

The first national study on the treatment and conditions of prisoners was conducted from February 2018 to January 2020.

The study was conducted with a team of up to thirty-three persons and data was gathered through inspections of twenty prisons under the Department of Prisons, questionnaires and interviews with over three thousand 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, Attorney General.

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.

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, which 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/bag. A prisoner at Welikada prison stated, ‘“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 eleven people in my room.”

Due to poor hygiene and sanitation, a large number of pests, such as rats and mosquitoes can be a found in prisons.

The food served in prison was observed to be unappetising and even spoilt at times. Prisoners cannot maintain contact with their families and legal representative because telephone facilities are not available in any prison, except for Welikada prison.

Prisoners admitted to having suicidal thoughts and the tendency to engage in self-harm, indicating a high level of mental distress behind bars.

Convicted inmates are paid Rs. 1 per day for engaging in prison work, as 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 re-integrate into society.

The study found that prisoners on death row and life prisoners were more vulnerable because they are held in prison indeterminately, without an end date to their sentence. Prisoners arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) have spent a prolonged period of time in remand. 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 basis of the evidence against many of them.

The Government had already announced the prison system will be restructured and several inmates are to be freed to reduce overcrowding. (Courtesy Daily Mirror)

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