Alleviating Suffering of Prisoners or a Commercial Venture?
By Thameenah Razeek
To relieve decades of congestion, the Government recently approved a plan to relocate Welikada Prison to Horana and convert it into a high-security prison complex.
A huge wall with the words ‘Prisoners are human beings’ was erected for years on the way to Dematagoda, after passing Borella, on Baseline Road. The wall runs alongside Sri Lanka's largest prison, called ‘Welikada Prison,’ which is 180-years-old and currently houses a considerable number of detainees.
Among them are drug addicts, minor criminals, murderers, and a huge number of detainees convicted of financial fraud. Despite the fact that it is written that "prisoners are human beings," it is a well-known fact that the prisoners' basic needs are not looked into at this prison, and it has made headlines. In particular, female convicts face a range of obstacles in this jail.
The Government has chosen a 200-acre tract of land in the Millewa area of Horana to reconstruct the Welikada Prison, which is presently located on a 42-acre plot of land, to better represent the full meaning of the statement on the wall.
The proposed prison complex in Horana will be ten times the size of the Welikada Prison Complex, according to State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners' Rehabilitation Lohan Ratwatte, and will assist to minimise overcrowding among detainees within prisons.
He went on to say that it would have sports stadiums, swimming pools, gyms, an industrial complex, and farms, as well as a drug-related and minor criminal rehabilitation centre.
As a result, the Urban Development Authority (UDA) is acquiring and developing the site where the Welikada Prison complex is located as a mixed UDA project, and Cabinet approval has been obtained to relocate the prison to Horana.
Development projects would be outsourced on a long-term lease basis to chosen local and foreign investors, according to the Cabinet Memorandum.
Why Welikada Prison?
However, it is important to recall that Welikada Prison is geographically and socially significant, in addition to being a historical landmark. Despite the fact that the past isn't pretty in any manner, the events in Sri Lanka placed the convicts' safety in peril.
Moving a historically significant prison poses a number of issues, one of which is how to transport prisoners safely. In response to that inquiry, Prison Spokesman Chandana Ekanayake, said a solid plan to move prisoners is yet to be considered, and that the process will take at least four years.
He emphasised that the inmates will be able to live peacefully in Horana and that this is one of the best moves the Prison Department has made so far. He said as Cabinet approval was only recently granted, they still need to consider how this procedure should begin.
The prison hospital, Welikada, Magazine, Remand jails, and the Female wing are among the five facilities in Borella Prison, according to him. These five sections will be moved to the Horana Prison Complex.
He said they have not yet assessed how to move the detainees from Horana to the relevant Court premises, but that the State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners' Rehabilitation is working on it. He asserted that the State Ministry and the UDA are in talks about this, and that the Prison Department will act on the two authorities' recommendations.
However, the process appears to be taking longer than expected, with Ekanayake predicting that it will take at least another four years to complete. Thus, he is unable to provide an exact date for the prison's relocation.
Why the change?
He went on to say that throwing forbidden substances into the Welikada Prison could not be halted, even after trying for years.
Wanathamulla and the Welikada Prison, which are separated by a single wall, are ideal places for the exchange of banned items. Banned items hurled into the prison from Wanathamulla have been seized hundreds of times by the prison intelligence squad. Banned items include phones, chargers, earphones, drugs, and SIM cards, to name a few.
To prevent narcotics, phones, and other prohibited items from being thrown over the security wall and into the prison grounds, the prison authorities chose to install a chain link fence close to the women's section of the Welikada Prison.
Commissioner of Prisons, General Thushara Upuldeniya, requested that the Ministry of Defence provide Army assistance in installing the chain link fence. “For a long time, prohibited items have been thrown into the women's section of the Welikada Prison over the wall along Seewali Lane in Wanathamulla, and the Police recently captured a number of people in the area,” he said.
According to Ekanayake, the Government made this choice after examining all of these factors.
Proposed new High Security Prison in Horana
The foundation laying ceremony for the new high security prison in Horana will take place by November, according to a spokesman for the State Ministry of Prison Management and Prisoners' Rehabilitation, and the convicts in the Magazine Prison will be evacuated first.
In contrast to Ekanayake's comments, spokesman Madhawa Weerasinghe stated that relocating the main five prisons to Horana will take at least two years.
There are around 30,000 remand detainees and convicts in Sri Lanka. Moreover, a third of the 30,000 are remand inmates. Our capacity, on the other hand, extends from 8,000 to 10,000 persons. This indicates that the entire prison complex is almost 350 per cent full.
Rather than imprisoning convicts and completely destroying their life, the Government chose to rehabilitate them by converting the Welikada Prison into a rehabilitation centre.
Minister of Justice Ali Sabry, commenting on the relocation process, said structures ten times larger than the current capacity will be built, and that they are currently researching how to repair and remodel the centre.
The Minister underlined that they are attempting to offer an atmosphere in which inmates may develop their mental health, and socialise, by establishing a prison complex like this. He added that they also want to follow long-standing international norms and put them into practice in an up-to-date manner.
According to him, the most notable difference will be that Welikada and Borella will be radically different from what they are now, which is left to be seen.
The cost of relocating the Welikada Prison Complex, on 200 acres, in Horana's Millewa neighbourhood, is expected to be Rs 31 billion. The new prison in Horana will be created with the intention of repurposing the Welikada Prison grounds for a UDA project, according to the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, because the inmate capacity exceeds 355 per cent.
The UDA will receive a free grant for the 42-acre tract of land that houses the Welikada jail complex.
Emphasising the incumbent Government's best efforts to compare the Horana Prison Complex with the world's most opulent and high-tech prisons, the equipment that will be installed in the new jail premises will also use a sophisticated surveillance system to monitor inmates' emotions and behaviours.
Despite the Cabinet decision on a vital prison in Downtown Colombo appearing to be a beneficial move, the Prisoners' Rights Protection Organisation feels that the Government is in the process of handing over the Welikada Prison land to a Chinese enterprise.
The organisation claims that plans are underway to relocate the Welikada Prison to Horana and clear the land because China is interested in the high-value property.
Denying the claim of a Chinese interest, a Spokesperson for the State Ministry of Prison Management said a correctional centre had purchased a valuable piece of land in the heart of Colombo.
He said the State Ministry, in collaboration with the UDA, will later use the site for an attractive project and turn it into an economic hub.
According to sources, Chinese personnel provided technical assistance for the construction of the Horana Prison Complex.
Residents in Horana have spoken out against the Cabinet's intention to relocate Welikada Prison to Horana, stating that Horana deserves to be a cultural city, not a location for a prison, because the great Veedagama Maha Maithri Thera and many artists once lived there.
Residents, as well as the Maha Sangha, scholars, artists, and business owners, spoke out against the decision, arguing that Horana, with its dense population and plenty of schools, did not deserve a prison that could become a sanctuary for criminals.
A Cabinet decision to set aside 200 acres of land for sports stadiums, swimming pools, gyms, an industrial complex, and farms, as well as a rehabilitation centre for individuals imprisoned for drug-related and minor offenses, sparked a debate. Many residents of Horana and the surrounding area were outspoken in their opposition to the decision.
Ven. Thamjamtenne Dhammaransi Thera, Chief Incumbent of the Isipathana Maha Viharaya in Horana, claimed they had heard that a prison complex in Colombo will be relocated to Horana. He did say, however, that they hadn’t got any written confirmation and that residents of Horana had joined together to show that a prison was not fit for a place like Horana.
According to residents, the Government is aiming to acquire the lands in Horana for the construction of the prison, which were formerly owned by their family. “We are not ready to hand over our inherited property to a prison at a time when even locating land that people want in Horana, a densely populated area, has become difficult,” a resident explained.
Horana's Coroner, Sumedha Gunawardene, said Horana is a place worthy of study, and that thousands of students visit Horana every day. They emphasised that they are looking forward to projects in such a city that would promote education, and that jails are unnecessary, and that it will be a campus, a technical faculty, and a medical faculty that will make this city famous. “We have all agreed to protest when a prison is introduced to Horana. At this time, I believe the people of Horana will protest if the prison is moved to Horana in this manner,” he said.