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Covid 19 outbreak at the Welikada jail probably confined to one Ward – Prison’s Chief

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lankan authorities are conducting mass testing for the Coronavirus in its largest jail after at least two dozen inmates at the overcrowded facility were found to be infected the Prisons Chief Thushara Upuldeniya told EconomyNext.

The Commissioner-General said this morning that 300 random tests done in the men’s Wards yesterday had “all come back negative and further testing is taking place.”

The first outbreak in the prison was detected in the women’s new intake ward on Thursday where four inmates, a prison pharmacist and a male inmate had been found to be Covid positive.

Thereafter tests done in the same women’s ward yielded 22 more Covid positive cases yesterday. They are now warded at the Welikanda Hospital, Upuldeniya said.

“This leads us to believe that the infection is confined to the Women’s new intake Ward,” Upuldeniya said.

“But we are not taking any chances and mass testing of inmates will continue,” Upuldeniya said.

The first group of four women inmates had been moved to the Angunakolapelessa detention facility for isolation, the Prison Department spokesman Commissioner Chandana Ekanayake said.

The Welikada Correctional facility built to accommodate around 2,000 inmates now houses around 4,500 according to Prisoners’ Rights activist Senaka Perera.

This makes it grossly overcrowded and in a situation where a highly contagious and potentially fatal virus is active, there could be disastrous consequences.

Perera claimed that “the prisoners are very tense and agitated and there is potential for rioting unless decisive action is taken.”

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He told EconomyNext that his organisation has warned the authorities “not to allow the situation to escalate so that extreme force would be needed to control the prisoners.”

He said that the prisoners were “living in fear because of the crowded conditions.”

The Advisor to the Ministry of Justice, Attorney-at-Law Udaya-Rohan de Silva, who chairs a committee looking into various issues affecting the Prisons, told EconomyNext that the Ministry, the Attorney General’s Department, the Prisons and police are working together to bring in measures to control overcrowding.

De Silva said that the committee had a discussion with the Attorney General Dappula de Silva earlier in the week who had advised the police to charge people nabbed with two or fewer grams of Heroin under section 78 of the Dangerous Drugs Ordinance so that they could be produced before a Magistrate and granted bail.

The same conditions would be extended to hauls less than five kg of Ganja (Cannabis Sativa L), he said.

“These instructions have been conveyed to the Inspector General of Police,” de Silva said.

Activist Perera welcomed the move from the authorities saying it was a practical solution to prevent overcrowding.

At present Police are charging those who are caught with these small quantities of Heroin under section 54 of the Ordinance which is usually for drug traffickers.

Under this section bail applications have to be filed before the High Court which takes months and fines imposed which often the alleged offenders are unable to pay. (Colombo November 7, 2020)

Reported by Arjuna Ranawana

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