Inside Story of Mahara Prison Mayhem
By Keerthi Mendis
Eight inmates were killed and sixty three were injured in the Mahara Prison riot, when prison guards opened fire as inmates began to destroy prison property and hold prison officers hostage.
There are more than 3,000 prisoners in the Mahara Prison. About 1,800 of them are remand prisoners.
When the news that COVID-19 was spreading within the prisons, both convicted and remand prisoners began to protest, requesting to be moved to prisons which are safe and to enlarge them on bail fast.
The first COVID-19 patient in the prison cluster was reported from the Welikada Prison. When the virus began to spread in the Welikada Prison, a number of prisoners were moved to Mahara Prison. This caused unrest among those who were already serving in Mahara Prison. As a result, prison officials directed a group of prisoners for PCR tests. A batch of the PCR test results were obtained on Sunday (29) and 183 inmates had tested positive to the Virus.
Following this development, there was unrest within the Prison. At the time the information came out, many prisoners were in the dinner queue. They now began to agitate and began to act in an aggressive manner. Realising that the situation was getting out of hand, Prison officials immediately informed the higher authorities. Prisoners at this point then began shouting to be immediately released and began marching towards the main gate of the Prison.
Prison officials attempted to bring the situation under control but being unable to do so informed the higher authorities of the prevailing situation.
When Western Province Senior DIG Dehsabandu Tennakoon was informed about the development inside the Prison, he instructed Western Province (North) DIG and Kelaniya Division Senior SP to go to Mahara Prison with several Police groups. Deputy Inspector General of Police and SDIG Tennakoon also arrived after a short while.
A Police official said Police officers were asked to enter the Prison unarmed.
“We were instructed to take only shields and batons to the Prison. However, we did not enter the Prison as we were instructed to fortify the security outside the Prison. About 100 STF officers arrived on the scene. Police officers and the Officers-in-Charge (OIC) of Ragama, Wattala, Kadawatha, Sapugaskanda, Kiribathgoda, Meegajawaththa and Peliyagoda Police Stations also arrived. They too were instructed not to use any weapons.
Our duty was to be on the lookout for prisoners who were attempting to flee. The STF was also assigned to protect the outside and the entrance to the Prison.
However, the unrest was getting out of hand by then. Meanwhile, Police officers tried their best to control the prisoners who were shouting near the entrance.
But then the prisoners began hurling rocks on prison property and causing damage. They set the documentation office on fire and it spread to the PHI office.
Meanwhile, some prisoners refrained from causing any damage to prison property and tried hard not to get involved. When the aggressive prisoners attempted to set the kitchen on fire, these prisoners prevented them from doing so. This led to a clash between the two groups. In the melee convicted prisoners started to beat remand prisoners while the fire was raging. The Fire Brigade was called in and they tried to douse the fire.
Meanwhile, another group of inmates had taken a nursing officer at the Prison Hospital and a prison guard hostage. The inmates assaulted the two officers. The prison premises had now turned into a battle ground.
The inmates’ aim was to escape from the prison. They made all attempts to break the main gates but were unsuccessful, as several security rings had been put in place around the prison.
The situation, however, was far from settled and with inmates damaging prison property, prison officials were compelled to open fire but with this the situation took a turn for the worse. Inmates caused severe damage to the Prison Superintendent’s Office, prison hospital and industrial section. Without stopping at that, the unruly mob set fire to these buildings. With darkness creeping in, it was difficult to look for injured prisoners who may have collapsed and the authorities found it difficult to evacuate them.
“There were inmates who supported us in this midst. We directed them to assist us in finding and evacuating injured inmates. By this time we knew that two prison officers were held hostage and were being assaulted. Therefore, we requested the prisoners to handover the two officials and to stop assaulting them. A faction of inmates was willing to come to a settlement and stop the clash. This, however, was not well received by the other group and once again infighting commenced. Top officials negotiated with them and some agreed to stop their agitation while the rest remained adamant. The convicted prisoners gave their fullest support to the Police,” he added.
Unfolding the sequence of the mayhem, the official said that they could not rescue the two prison officers who were held hostage even by midnight despite repeated pleas.
“By 2.00 a.m. we were able to rescue with great difficulty, a prison guard named Chathuranga with the help of convicted prisoners and he was in critical condition by then. The most difficult part was the rescue operation launched on a male nurse held hostage. We had to adopt a different strategy and again the convicted prisoners came to our assistance. He was clad in a ‘jumper’ of a convicted inmate and was escorted out of prison on a route that was pitch dark before clashing inmates realised that he was not an inmate,” he narrated.
By the wee hours of 30 November, inmates had broken into the band room and taken instruments and costumes out. A section of inmates started dancing in those costumes while some played instruments and another sang songs.
By the dawn of Monday (30) they also set fire to the boiler and another group tried to escape by climbing atop a roof of a prison building.
Even though intermittent gunshots were heard until dawn, no officials were allowed to enter the Prison.
Certain inmates, on requests made by the Police and the Special Task Force, brought injured inmates to the main gate. By noon yesterday, the situation was brought under control. Officials including Prisons Commissioner General Thushara Upuldeniya held hours of discussions as to what future steps have to be taken regarding the situation of the prisoners.
By yesterday, eight inmates had died and their bodies were kept in the mortuary of the Ragama Teaching Hospital. Fifty inmates who sustained injuries were admitted to hospital, and the two injured prison officials were in a critical state. Relatives of inmates who learnt what had happened, came to the Mahara Prison began crying and shouting at the gate. Another group of relatives were present near the Ragama Teaching Hospital.
Western Province DIG Deshabandu Thennakoon, too, visited the Mahara Prison in the morning and checked security measures at the premises.
By that time, the tense situation had been brought under control, and steps had been taken to monitor the situation within the Prison premises using Air Force drone cameras.
All those who died and sustained injuries had been removed from the Prison premises. Police and prisons officials had taken steps to send COVID-19 infected inmates based on PCR test reports to treatment centres and the others to quarantine centres. Among them were inmates who had been granted bail as well.
Although the situation was under control, security outside and in the surrounding area of the Prison was still maintained. It was reported that 400 Police officers as well as 200 Special Task Force personnel had been deployed to maintain security.
State Minister of Prison Reforms and Prisoners' Rehabilitation, Sudarshani Fernandopulle, appointed a committee led by the Prisons Secretary to look into the unrest which broke out in the Prison.
Meanwhile, arrangements had been made to conduct magisterial inquiries and post-mortem examinations on the deceased inmates yesterday.
The State Minister, expressing her views, said that an invisible hand was attempting to trigger certain incidents within the Prison in a bid to embarrass the Government. She also emphasised the need to find out who was behind these attempts, and that the CID has been entrusted with the task to conduct investigations in this regard.