ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s overcrowded prisons are constantly simmering with tensions, and the threat of COVID19 entering them has raised anxiety to a new level and placed jailors and inmates on edge.
Already the current situation has resulted in two deaths at the Anuradhapura jail when jail guards opened fire to quell a riot that grew out of a protest by inmates on March 21. At least six other inmates were injured in the shooting.
The incident at Anuradhapura began because of the restrictions the jail placed on visits to the inmates by close relatives as a measure to control the spread of COVID19. The primary complaint when such restrictions are placed is about food, says President of the Committee to Protect the Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) Senaka Perera.
It is often alleged that due to corruption in the Prisons the quantity of food the Department provides inmates is grossly insufficient and it requires food from home to keep the inmates adequately fed.
Perera, who is an attorney, told EconomyNext the “situation was made worse because there were rumours that an inmate infected with COVID19 has been transferred to the jail.”
Senior Prison staff were quoted in the media that a number of regular guards had not reported to work that day following the rumours.
Finally, to quell the riot and restore order the Police Special Task Force had to be called in. Police said that the deaths and injuries to the inmates had been caused due to firing by Prison Guards.
On March 16 CPRP submitted a paper to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa calling for the release of certain groups of prisoners to ease the overcrowding.
They included those who could not pay a small fine, those who could not afford to post bail or meet other bail conditions and others who were ill or over 72.
At present the premier jail, Welikada houses over 5,000 inmates in a space built during colonial times to accommodate 850. In Kegalle, another hot spot, there are 800 in a facility meant for 300.
“It is impossible to keep the distance required for personal space as recommended by the Health Authorities to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in our jails,” Perera pointed out. “If someone who is infected is detained, then the overcrowding and the unsanitary conditions could cause it to spread quickly,” he said.
On March 24 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa discussed the issue with a new committee appointed to take “relief measures for the prisons,” his Media Spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said.
The committee was specifically asked to ease congestion in Prisons.
The committee that includes Prison Department Chief Jayasiri Tennakoon and the President of the Bar Association Kalinga Indatissa was to have met yesterday with the President.
Across the world, dozens of prisoners have died in overcrowded prisons ranging from Columbia to Italy to India as the COVID19 threat made prisoners restive.
In Italy at least 50 jails have seen riots connected to the coronavirus threat mostly over the extraordinary restrictions imposed on visitors. Thirteen inmates have died in these incidents.
In Colombia, more than 23 inmates were killed and dozens of guards injured in a riot in the capital Bogota’s prison, officials said. The government triggered provisions which would allow for the release of prisoners over 60.
Sri Lanka’s incidents where inmates have been killed in Sri Lanka’s prisons have been reported in the past. Among the worst of the incidents was the murder of Tamil prisoners in 1983 at Welikada, at Bindunuwewa in 2000, Vavuniya in 2012 and the most recent massacre again at Welikada in 2012.
Writing in Groundviews Human Rights activist Ruki Fernando urged the authorities to take action to prevent such incidents.
He said that society should acknowledge that “prisoners are amongst the most vulnerable, have limited contacts with anxious families and the outside world and have less access to reliable information. They may panic and take desperate measures to protect and remove themselves from real or perceived harm from COVID-19 and may even resort to irrational, illegal or violent behaviour. Anxious and overworked prison staff and authorities may be hard-pressed to control such behaviour” Fernando said. (Colombo, March 27, 2020)