Prison riots worldwide | Sunday Observer

Prison riots worldwide

13 December, 2020
A  Prison riot in Texas (Courtesy -
A Prison riot in Texas (Courtesy -

Freedom is a word cherished both by human as well as the animal kingdom. Human beings can be confined or imprisoned individually and/or collectively by groups and governments going back to the medieval era and Empires including the Roman Empire and dictatorial rulers in various parts of the world.

Animals are caged as exhibits and/or on temporary storage for food. Only Animal Rights Activists and Religious Groups voice for them whereas human beings are protected by local and international organisations, legal systems and activists for their rights namely human rights, as protected by the United Nations and local/international legal systems, treatises and conventions.

In 1750 Plato – during the Babylonian period used prisons as a mechanism to collect fines and, a mode of punishment used by rulers and kings for offences committed. In 640 BC subjects were sentenced to slavery during the dark eras.

The Bridewell House of Correction Prisons was one of the earliest in Britain. Milibank - a prison in UK in 1816 had 1,000 inmates and a large kitchen. In 2012 USA had 3.3 million inmates being the largest when Sweden closed prisons for want of inmates. Prisons are unpleasant places of confinement of subjects by the rulers. Sri Lanka inherited the British prison system with few adjustments and few or no drastic changes.

It is the duty of the government to protect the inmates of prisons and detention centres as protected by international law, conventions and treaties (Article 1 -13-4 of the international covenant of civic and political rights supported by the case of Lakmal Vs Niroshan) in addition to municipal laws such as the fundamental rights incorporated in the Constitution (Article 14(1) to be enforced by Article 126).

Prison riots take place worldwide. The UN Charter covers the broader spectrum of protection and preservation of individual and collective human rights including the Law of Nations. The famous Belmarsh prison in UK once continued riots for days. Prison riots in USA are also very common with a large number of inmates rioting.

Prison population

In 2016, the Sri Lankan prison population was estimated at 17,478 and in 2018 it was said to be 20,384, with a staff of 6,038.

The prisons were thus grossly insufficient to house the inmates. Prison reforms suggested by Sir Fredrick North to amend the Prison Ordinance of 10/1877 were not fully implemented. Today new changes appear to be in place headed by a youthful and efficient Prisons Commissioner. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and many local and international groups have come forward to help prisons where overcrowding is widespread in many parts of the world.

Prisoners are a disturbed group and need friendship, attention and care which they lacked and which apparently led to disturbed citizens becoming out of control.


It is learnt that the Prison management has obtained the assistance of young lawyers to ensure the control of overcrowding and ease congestion by expeditious disposition of minor cases and filing bail applications in addition to transferring some inmates to Angunukolapalessa, the newly set up detention centre.

It is timely to bring to the notice of the Ministry of Justice a scheme adopted in 1987/88 jointly by the BASL, Legal Aid Commission, Judiciary and some active organisations such as Sarvodaya, with then late Chief Justice Sharavanda CJ, and others who launched a program to visit prisons by law students to help the inmates, together with young lawyers and volunteers launching a joint effort to assist long term detainees to be released – a very successful project. It would be opportune to reactivate the same process even after 23 years!

Mandela test

Nelson Mandela said, “The nation is judged by the way it treats the lowest level of subjects’’ whose freedom is restricted, that is, those detained at the mercy of the ruler. Mandela spent 27 long years performing hard labour in prisons under the most brutal regime, yet showed no vengeance or anger towards the rulers who subjected him to hard labour. He was magnanimous in showing mercy and loving kindness during his tenure of office as a popular ruler of South Africa. This message spread throughout the world in prison circles leading to a positive note among prisoners.

Article 3 of UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human rights) states everybody has a right to life, liberty and security. No one should be subjected to torture, degrading punishment or arbitrary arrest, running up to 30 exhaustive rights with several additional clauses. The Mandela test is adopted to judge the standard of treatment of prisoners which is scrutinised by human rights movements worldwide.

Prisoners are also humans

The recent prison riots in Sri Lanka resulted in the death of 11 inmates and injuring around 107 according to current estimates which may vary, and the loss of millions of rupees as damage to property, etc. In 1983 – 25 inmates were killed and in 2012, 27 were killed in Sri Lanka apart from other minor incidents. Committees are appointed and inquiries are in progress in finding the root causes and assessment of damage which is an arduous task. It is time to live up to the motto, ‘Prisoners are also humans.’ Overcrowding in prisons is common the world over especially in underdeveloped countries, while some countries have star class prisons.

The oldest prison in Madras and prisons in Bangladesh are famous for overcrowding and sufferings as a result. In Sri Lanka 28,000 inmates have been packed into an accommodation for some 11,000. Overcrowding leads to many health and psychological issues, especially, when there is a serious pandemic that has engulfed the entire world.

Hence, open air centres would be a solution to congestion if not for the large number of drug addicts, 46.4 percent drug addicts and 62.4 percent drug users invading the remand prisons.

The Covid-19 pandemic made the inmates restless and uncontrollable with little to offer by the prison authorities helplessly watching the different underworld groups instigated by unseen forces fighting each other on drug, crime and other personal related matters, duped by the tablets taken by force opening the pharmacy.

Fortunately, a catastrophe was avoided by the prompt action taken by the authorities from breaking open the armoury. The inmates may have legitimate grievances such as the want of PCR tests and to stop bringing infested inmates from other prisons which they had no means of discussing in a more cordial environment.


It would be a good idea to appoint an Ombudsman for every prison and a main Ombudsman on the apex body with some powers as a conciliatory body to ease the tension of prisoners.

Drug menace in prisons is dangerously high with 46.4% drug addicts restless for want of drugs. It is time to give priority to the eradication of the drug menace by advice, education, medicine and counselling rather than detention.

In-house legal advice and assistance in prisons should be introduced and encouraged as every inmate has a problem which sometimes could be trivial and the fact that legal assistance is available would ease the anger and tension in those detained. It is a simple process where the Legal Aid Commission can appoint a duty Attorney or trainee attorneys as in the United Kingdom where there is a duty Solicitor for every court covering prisons looked after by the legal aid scheme, committed to prevent revolts and revolutions in the society.

The Bar Association and professionals should play a major role with civic conscious/minded members. Prison reforms and legal reforms to prevent law’s delays seem imminent, and it is good news that it is in progress. The use of emails, and computer technology, like in UK where the Magistrate’s Court shares the computer with police and prisons to conduct proceeding at a distance are salutary steps.

The Prison Act is inherited from the British in the same format and while UK has made many changes in prison management, we are still lagging behind with the same Act. The prison system is of high quality in UK and the West, whereas we have many drawbacks due to social, economic and external factors. Even the prisons in oil rich Middle East countries maintain high standards treating prisoners as humans with modern buildings and sophisticated equipment.

Training and education

In-house and overseas training must be given to prison staff to learn how other prisons manage, sometimes so well even in not so developed countries. Education for inmates and officers including religious education and practices such as meditation has proved successful in many countries. It would be good to introduce the Sunday school system in prisons and Television will be a good medium for learning process and to provide online education to inmates who wish to study.

The media should play a major role in this process as at times they report in an irresponsible manner for want of publicity. The media should be civic- minded as prisons will be a centre of destruction if not handled properly as a training centre for preventing crime and destruction.

There appears to be an attitude problem from the time of admission of an inmate by giving merely a number and regarding him as a material thing the world over rather than a human being, although the motto is that prisoners are humans. It is useful to make them understand that they are a part of a commune as in a ‘Kibbutz’ in Israel where all resources are shared and used. This feeling will eradicate communal problems and give them a feeling of oneness with the rest. It is necessary to provide facilities to inmates to communicate with their family and loved ones supervised by officers.

Way forward

It is time to give serious thought to prisons and prison reforms as it would become a time bomb and a centre of destruction if not managed and controlled properly. It has transformed to become a centre of training of criminals and hub of illegal deals and drug mafia despite checks and balances by the Security Forces and the prison authorities. Prison authorities have proved incapable and insufficient showing the need for a consolidated effort by a wider section of the community as discussed above.

Prisoners have proved to be sharp and get over the problems successfully managing all illegal and illicit affairs despite stringent rules. Segregation should be avoided not to make the prison a training centre of grooming and training young offenders for crime. The staff should be given extensive training in conciliation, diplomacy and education with the assistance of psychologists and educationists. This matter should be given serious consideration and the prison and the prisoners must be taken seriously as a matter of priority.

The writer is a President’s Counsel, Solicitor in England and Wales, former Ambassador to UAE and Israel, and President Ambassadors’ Forum.