Rehabilitation or degeneration?

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“At Watareka Open Prison Camp, we are in a two-year rehabilitation programme. The prison administration has made attempts to place us in various jobs. Jailer Ramanayake brought us here (Malabe) today (9 May). We are Watareka Open Prison Camp inmates.”

This is a person describing himself as a prisoner under the supervision of a jailor named Ramanayake that was captured in camera footage circulating on social media. He claims he and others were transported from Watareka Open Prison Camp to construction sites as part of a rehabilitation programme.

The statement was made by a group of Watareka Open Prison Camp inmates who were reportedly deployed to attack the GotaGoGama peaceful demonstrators. When they were beaten up by mobs in Thalahena, Malabe, these persons confessed that they were prisoners. However, the plight of these detainees has attracted the attention of international human rights organisations.

According to Commissioner General of Prisons Thushara Upuldeniya, buses transporting convicts were attacked by a mob last Monday, with a total of 58 inmates disappearing on that day, while 123 were secured.

However, things took a turn for the worse when it was revealed that the prisoners had been used for mob attacks.

Did the prison administration breach the ethics code?

Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) Chairman, Attorney-at-Law Senaka Perera said forcing prison inmates to participate in political protests and attack anti-government protesters in Colombo last week is a breach of the Prison Department’s code of ethics.

He said prison inmates are governed by the Sri Lanka Prisons Ordinance, and there is no provision in the legislation that allows prisoners to work as labourers for non-State firms.

According to Perera, a prison exists to rehabilitate inmates and change their mindset. However, it appears that petty politics has forced prison convicts to be used.

The GotaGoGama protest site at Galle Face and the MynaGoGama protest site near Temple Trees were both damaged by supporters of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Government.

The Attorney added that inmates attacked peaceful protesters at the above sites. According to estimates, 600 inmates were transported to the Prime Minister’s official residence, Temple Trees, to aid in the onslaught on the protesters.

“This is not the first time that prisoners have been exploited. When in custody of the Prisons Department, inmates should be protected. We ask Commissioner General of Prisons Thushara Upuldeniya to resign from his position because it is apparent that these detainees were involved in the attack on the general population,” he said.

Prisoners should be rehabilitated and should not commit these acts again. Because over 600 detainees were brought to assault civilians, I believe Upuldeniya should be prosecuted under criminal law, he said.

What are they trying to hide?

However, Prisons Spokesman Chandana Ekanayake denied this allegation.

He asserted that the inmates in question were part of a special programme organised by the Prisons Department for the goodwill of the inmates, and that as a result, a group of inmates were taken out of Watareka Open Prison Camp on a timetable basis for outdoor construction work under the supervision of prison personnel.

“The goal is to develop well-trained workers. They were attacked by a furious mob when they were returning to the Watareka Open Prison Camp in Homagama after finishing their service last Monday, and a group of detainees was hurt and hospitalised,” he said.

The prisoners were being taken to the Watareka Open Prison Camp following duties at construction sites at the time of the attack, according to the Prisons Department. Three jailors and ten detainees were hospitalised as a result of the incident, according to the Prisons Superintendent.

On the other hand, Ekanayake added in a statement that the Watareka Open Prison Camp had assigned 30 inmates to a construction site in Kollupitiya, 105 to a construction site in Rajagiriya, and 45 to Battaramulla. According to the Prison’s Chief, the buses were taking the detainees back to the rehabilitation centre.

In addition, he disputed reports made on social media that these detainees were employed to harm anti-government protesters.

Were they transported safely?

Ekanayake said the inmates were riding in a prison bus with at least ten jailors. However, the demonstrators set fire to a regular private bus, which the protesters claimed was used to transport prison inmates.

Watareka prison inmates travelled in buses used to transport SLPP crowds who were consuming alcohol, and the mobs were able to set fire to the buses.

Is the rehabilitation programme legal?

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has launched an investigation into these incidents.

On 12 May, the HRCSL summoned the Commissioner General of Prisons and another officer to investigate the involvement of inmates from Watareka Open Prison Camp in the attacks near the Presidential Secretariat and Temple Trees.

When asked how long the programme has been running, Ekanayake clarified that they have been conducting rehabilitation programmes for a long time. When asked when the Prisons Department obtained the necessary permission, Ekanayake said a Cabinet Paper and the approval of the Attorney General paved the way for the implementation of the law requiring prisoners to work as labourers on construction sites.

In response to another question about how much prison inmates are paid, he asserted that they will be paid Rs 500 per day. In response to Ekanayake’s comment, Perera said according to internal sources, Watareka Open Prison Camp inmates are working for a non-State company that pays around Rs 3,400.

Perera claimed, Rs 3,400, Rs 2,000, and Rs 1,000 will go to the political goons and the Prisons Department behind the work, with only Rs 400 going to the inmate.

Who is to blame for inciting violence islandwide?

Despite the State of Emergency in the country, the Galle Face attack, which killed nine people, has left the entire island in disarray, notwithstanding the top prison officials confirming that the detainees were not involved in any illegal activities. A closer look reveals similarities between the trousers worn by the inmates of Watareka Open Prison Camp and the protesters.

It was observed that the trousers worn by the group of detained men were identical to those worn by people who were among the group that attacked peaceful protests on Monday in Colombo. The Commissioner General of Prisons said the men were not wearing prison fatigues, but were wearing a uniform provided to them by the institutions that employed their services.

The question of whether Watareka Open Prison Camp inmates were used to attack peaceful protesters has been raised by a number of people. According to Perera, many of the detainees have gone missing.

“If people who need to be rehabilitated are mistreated in this way, they will go the other way. A large number of inmates have vanished by now. It is unclear whether they will be used in other attacks,” he said.

Meanwhile, CPRP General Secretary, Sudesh Nandimal Silva, said they take all of these people from Watareka Open Prison Camp and break them into their workplaces in this manner.

Suspicious behaviour by prison officials

Following the mayhem of 9 May, lawyers led by Perera visited the Welikada Prison to speak with the inmates. However, neither the Commissioner General nor the prisoners were given the opportunity to meet with the Attorneys.

When asked why the department imposed such rules that did not exist previously, he claimed that prison officials are now conducting a brainwashing campaign in Welikada to make the Watareka prisoners forget the incident that occurred on 9 May.

He also claims that some officers in the Prisons Department are looking for a way to destroy documents related to these inmates if they refuse to do as they please.

“We have also received internal reports that some prisoners, such as those at Watareka Open Prison Camp, are chronically depressed. Some of the prisoners at the Watareka Open Prison Camp are strangling themselves because prison officials are constantly forcing them to engage in these kinds of mob attacks,” he said.

Contradicting its own emblem?

In the Prisons Department emblem, the lion represents the pride of the nation, the two ears of paddy represent the prosperity of the country, the identity of the department is written in all three languages (Sinhala, English, and Tamil), the main theme (motto) and it is bonded to be symbolised by a statement, and the security of the prisoner is illustrated by the two keys.

However, as seen by the Attorneys in Sri Lanka, the Prisons Department is violating its own motto of providing care, security, and corrections. The vision of the Prisons Department, “Social reintegration of inmates as good citizens through rehabilitation,” is being questioned.

By Thameenah Razeek