Release Prisoners or Find Alternative Accommodation
A crisis is brewing inside Sri Lanka’s overcrowded prison system. Once the second COVID-19 wave began sweeping across the country, particularly in the Western Province, one of the biggest concerns in the minds of health authorities was how this would affect the prison system. They reasoned that if one inmate were to contract the fast-spreading coronavirus, it would spread like wildfire throughout the system, mostly because the prison system in Sri Lanka is filled to capacity, and therefore, maintaining health guidelines such as social distancing was not possible.
The first case from within the prison system was reported in July. Following this, the authorities took steps to stop visitors from seeing inmates with immediate effect. Over 500 persons at the Welikada Prison and its hospital were subjected to PCR tests, and authorities also quarantined those at a prison in Polonnaruwa as the infected inmate was lodged there before being transferred to the Welikada main prison.
When the second wave hit the prisons, coronavirus infected detainees who were treated at the Welikada Prison Hospital were referred to either the Kandakadu or Gallella Treatment Centres. Women inmates infected with the COVID-19 were admitted to the Welikanda Treatment Centre. Up to now, all COVID-19-infected prisoners are being held at the Welikada Prison Hospital, Pallansena and Bogambara Prisons. The Department of Prisons has decided to admit the inmates who are sent for quarantine to the vacant Welikada Prison Hospital.
Commissioner General of Prisons, Thushara Upuldeniya told the Media, that some of the remand prisoners have been sent to the Boossa Prison for quarantine.
When the number of coronavirus cases in prisons started surging, a group of inmates at the Bogambara Prison staged a protest demanding PCR tests to be conducted on them. They feared of contracting the virus in the overcrowded prison. However, prison authorities dismissed their fears as being unfounded as the prisoners were already subjected to PCRs.
Last week, another group of prisoners, this time at the Welikada Prison, staged a protest on the prison roof demanding that bail should be expedited for remand prisoners. Again, their fear was being in contact with COVID-19 positive inmates.
In another development, the Business Committee of Parliament decided not to allow parliamentarians currently jailed in the Welikada and Magazine Prisons to attend Parliament sessions as COVID-19 is spreading in the prison complex.
Accordingly, Batticaloa District MP Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan and Vanni District MP Rishad Bathiudeen, who are in remand custody and Ratnapura District MP Premalal Jayasekara, who is serving a death sentence at the Welikada Prison, will not be summoned to sit in Parliament until further notice.
However, in the event of a vote in Parliament, the MPs will be brought to Parliament following safety measures in accordance with health regulations.
By last Friday, 564 prisoners have been identified as having contracted the coronavirus. In order to stop the further spread of the virus, State Minister of Prison Reforms and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation,
Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle instructed the prison officials to draw-up a mechanism that will direct all new inmates to a quarantine process and then be subject to PCR tests, before being allowed to be placed inside prisons.
The objective of this programme is to prevent COVID-19 infected prisoners from entering the prisons in Sri Lanka.
At a meeting with the prison officials, the State Minister had stressed the urgent need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons as at present around 1.5% of the total prison population have been exposed to COVID-19.
More than 50 per cent of the inmates within the prison system are remand prisoners. And, most of them have been arrested over drug-related offences. Early on, when the coronavirus started spreading in the country there was a proposal to release 8,000 remand prisoners depending on the nature of their offences. Accordingly, 2,961 prisoners who were serving sentences for minor offences were granted bail. However, a lot more need to be released in order to ease the strained conditions in the prisons.
Health and military officials are on a race against time to contain the spread of this debilitating virus. If the cluster in prisons gets out of hand, it will burden the system to the point of breaking down. Therefore, the authorities must find alternatives to house remand prisoners who have been incarcerated over minor offences and prevent them from interacting with outsiders as much as possible.