Transforming lives behind bars | Sunday Observer

Transforming lives behind bars

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, author of “Crime and Punishment” once said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” He was right. A society cannot be recognized as civilized, unless it treats the prisoners with sympathy and affection. This treatment is not possible till society itself recognizes and accepts that the prisoners are also human beings who are entitled to enjoy all basic fundamental rights.

Ideally, as soon as an offender is admitted to prison, emphasis should move from punishment, towards rehabilitation, instilling in the inmate the willpower to lead a law-abiding and self -supporting life, after the release.


Towards achieving this objective, the Department of Prisons in Sri Lanka has introduced many new reforms to the prison system.

The construction of eight new modem prisons were planned, of which, three have been completed. Community-based rehabilitation programmes were introduced and, as a result, the Department was able to reduce the prison population by 9,000.

The hypothesis of this initiative is to keep prisoners who committed minor offences within the community and rehabilitate them.

At the same time, for drug addicts, a Drug Rehabilitation Centre was opened, the basic thinking behind it being, to treat them as patients who needed treatment and not as criminals.

Then, we have the open prisons, their emergence marking the beginning of a new phase in the history of prisons in Sri Lanka. The first one was set up in Pallekelle, and three more established thereafter.

Literacy and education classes were also started in all major prisons with the assistance of the Department of Education, and libraries introduced to all prisons for leisure time reading and reference.

Rehabilitation revolution

These, and many more reforms, have a high potential. However, more radical changes are needed.

Take for example, what is known as “rehabilitation revolution.” Many Asian countries have found it to be successful.

This type of reform recognises the prison post-secondary education as one of the key elements in enhancing offenders’ employability, leading to the much-heralded “rehabilitation revolution”.

Most studies show single digit numbers regarding return rates of those who complete post-secondary education. It means, these ex-prisoners are finding their place in society. Instead of being liabilities, they become assets.

Post-secondary education may range from horticulture, wood crafting or cookery to law or management, with facilities to continue studies granted to the prisoners. The Open University can play a major role in this reform process.

Other than the specific post-secondary education, exposure to indoor classes such as, cross-cultural communications, ethics, interpersonal communications, psychology, philosophy, sociology, and so on can be conducted for all inmates. They encourage prisoner students to think beyond themselves and create in them the ability to empathize with others. This is an essential part of rehabilitation.

The current prison system shows three major problems which need immediate attention.


That our prisons are overcrowded is a well-known fact. A recent research revealed that our Prisons are holding three times their carrying capacity. With the opening of new prisons, the problem may ease but it is not a solution by itself.

A retired Supreme Court Judge, Justice Nissanka Udalagama once said, Sri Lanka’s Pre-Trial Detention system needs more concern.

He said: “A person held in remand custody suspected or accused of committing an offence has a right to expect trial within a reasonable time. Many of them are detained on the allegation of involvement in trivial offences punishable with a penalty, far less than the time they have already been in custody.

“The basis of the Bail Act says, remanding is the exception and giving bail, the norm. Yet again, the decision is at the sole discretion of the judge, in which none can interfere. There are other ways, such as bonds and personal undertakings, to facilitate pre-trial release without ordering bail. Ordering excessive bail amounts to refusal of bail.”

His comments need careful consideration on the ground that the ratio between remand prisoners and those convicted has become 3:1, respectively.

There is yet another baneful effect of overcrowding. It does not permit segregation among convicts - those punished for serious offences and minor offences. The result may be, hardened criminals spread their influence over others.

On the other hand, juvenile offenders kept in jails get mixed up with others and are likely to get spoiled further. So, the problem of overcrowding needs to be tackled in earnest for a better future.

It is apparent, the delay in trial finds under-trial prisoners in jail for a longer period while awaiting the decision of the case.

The release of these prisoners on bail where the trial gets protracted would hopefully take care to a great extent the hardships caused in this regard.

The mental agony, expense and strain which an under-trial prisoner has to undergo and which, coupled with undue delay, may result in impairing the ability of the accused to defend himself.

Prison vices

Talking about vices, there are many types of vices prevalent inside our prisons. In many of them, a mix of inmate ingenuity, complicit visitors and corrupt staff have kept the level of inmate drug abuse constant over the past decades, despite concerted efforts to reduce it.

A recent boom in cell-phone smuggling has complicated matters, with inmates sometimes using phones to arrange drug deliveries and other major crimes.

There must be a more rational way to deal with prison vices rather than awarding hard punishment to them.

A modern prison system is a crying need in the backdrop of these issues. Efforts should be made to improve the system by introducing internationally used accommodation system and educating the staff about new management techniques and on the constitutional rights of prisoners.