Prison system and prisoner’s rights in Lanka | Sunday Observer

Prison system and prisoner’s rights in Lanka

26 September, 2021

A person is not born a criminal. All are born into this world with only the information that their genes carry. But in addition to those genetic traits, a human being is created from the experience of life, environment, and society in which he/she lives.

It determines whether he or she is a criminal under the influence of himself or someone else. Looking at a country’s prison, one can draw some conclusions about the whole society of that country and also about the education system of that country.

If the number of prisoners and inmates in prison is at a low level corresponding to the population of the country, it can be concluded that the country is a success as a whole.

Man is an animal. It has an undisciplined vulgar character. But today, through the social development and rules created by religions, cultures, and inventions, the animal has been somewhat subdued and transformed into a civilised human being.

But in spite of that, some people are making mistakes by allowing their undisciplined minds to go beyond the norms. Such offences are prohibited under the Sri Lankan existing criminal and civil law.

There are two main types of penalties for criminal offences in the Penal Code and many other offences pointed out by statutes. They are fines and imprisonment. Imprisonment is of two types. Imprisonment with and without hard work (rigorous Imprisonment). In addition to imprisonment, the minimum penalties for an offender may be imprisonment in open-air prisons and public service.


The current prison system, as well as many other aspects of the criminal justice administration, were passed down to Sri Lanka from the British. However, this does not exclude out the possibility of jails pre British times.

Historical evidence reveals that the Dutch and Portuguese had prisons in several of their coastal cities. Mahawansa referred to imprisonment in many cases, and Prince Vijaya’s 700 soldiers were supposedly detained by Kuveni. And also Robert Knox stated in his book “Historical Relations of Ceylon”, regarding prisoners in the kingdom of Kandy.

A prison is a structure designed to isolate society from the influence of criminals. There is also a structure that helps criminals to understand the seriousness of the offence they have done and to develop as human beings and to be reintegrated into society as good citizens with good rehabilitation.

But today the prison is a university for criminals. The reason is that they meet and exchange ideas with many other criminals who have similar views. But what needs to happen is to suppress their criminal ideas and implement programs that cultivate good ideas and boost their self-confidence to return to society as good citizens.

The Sri Lankan Government and the Prison Department have introduced industries such as tailoring, carpentry, masonry, sheet metal work, and bakery with the aim of offering vocational training to prisoners.

Literacy and education classes were started in all major prisons with the assistance of the Department of Education. Libraries too have been introduced to all prisons for leisure time reading and reference.


The primary purposes of Sri Lanka’s prison system are to imprison the convicted prisoners and unconvicted inmates. Over 20 prison lock-ups have been taken over by the Department of Prisons from the Fiscal Department.

The Department also maintains a number of extra remand prisons since inmates must appear in different courts.

For the purpose of keeping convicted prisoners Welikada, Bogambara, and the Mahara prisons were maintained as well as remand prisons across the country for the unconvicted.

Currently, the Bogambara Prison has been replaced at Pallakelle, Kandy. The Department of Prisons maintained above three main prisons from the time of the British administration that housed the long-term first offenders, re-convicts, and those who re-offended. And also there are several open-air prisons around the country.

Any related person is identified as a suspect before being convicted of a crime. Depending on the nature of the offense committed, a suspect may be kept in police custody or remanded without bail for further investigations or in cases where it may be concluded that the community or witnesses may be harassed.

The suspect is also being remanded in custody for non-bailable offences which have been specifically mentioned in various statutes in Sri Lanka.

For example, a suspect of a heroin case or a suspect who has committed an offence under the Archaeological Act or the Public Property Act is generally not granted bail. In such cases, the suspect will often have to remain in remand custody for several months until the completion of the forensic report or the report issued by the Archaeological Department.


This is a very unfair process. The reason is that this turns out to be like a punishment for these suspects before they are convicted. On the other hand, there is a depletion of innocent prison inmates and a waste of public money for them. Here a person is likely to be punished even if he does not commit a crime, which is a violation of fundamental rights.

The Bail Act also states that granting bail is the rule and not granting bail is the exception under section 2. Therefore, this is a current matter for the Government and legal scholars to hold discussions to reduce the time limit for such reports, investigations, and other related matters.

The human rights of a prisoner have been protected by legislation, both internationally and nationally, proving the claim that ‘prisoners are also human beings.

The first prison statute was introduced in 1844, named “An Ordinance for Better Prison Regulation.” There were also many prisons built during this time, notably the Welikada Prison and Hultfsdorp Prison. The prisons ordinance of 1869, which created a standard structure for prisons throughout the country, was the next significant legislation.

In 1877 the legislation about prisons was enacted in order to modify and consolidate. It is the law regulating prisoners and inmates, which is referred to as the “Prison Ordinance” with many amendments that have occurred from time to time. Under this Ordinance, all the powers in supervision and control of prisoners are vested with the Inspector General of Prisons.

Other than such statutes, the Sri Lankan Constitution of 1978 Chapter III states about the fundamental rights and all prisoners will have those rights as they are also humans and still Sri Lankan citizens. Some of them are freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom from torture, and so on.

Article 13 of the Constitution emphasises that any person should be informed of the reason for arrest before an arrest and should be considered innocent until the conviction after a fair trial.

And also the criminal procedure code states that the police should not keep any suspect in custody for more than 24 hours but has to be produced before a Magistrate unless there is a special circumstance.


Prisoners can be categorised into many sectors as, prisoners on death penalty/ life imprisonment, prisoners held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), young offenders, foreign nationals, women and prisoners with disabilities, and so on.

The Prison Ordinance provides that when there is any matter connected with a female prisoner there must be a female jailer at the instance. It is a right vested for female prisoners.

Sri Lanka has ratified the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. This is also known as Nelson Mandela’s Rules. Rules 1-5 provide the following basic principles.

Prisoners must be treated with respect for their inherent dignity and value as human beings. Torture or other ill-treatment is prohibited, prisoners should be treated according to their needs without discrimination, the purpose of prison is to protect society and reduce re-offending, the safety of prisoners, staff, service providers and visitors at all times is paramount.

There are over 100 rules in this piece of document and Sri Lanka is bound to obey such rules in the prisons and to implement such rules as laws in the domestic context of the law.

However, most of the rules have been implemented in the Prison Ordinance of Sri Lanka. In a nutshell they all have the rights over accommodation, food, water, sanitation and personal hygiene, access to medical treatment, contact with the outside world (family and other visitors), grievance mechanisms, inmate-officer relationship, access to any religious observance, any cell should have access to communicate with a prison officer and access to legal representation and so on.

Section 63 of the Prison Ordinance states that other than criminal prisoners, civil prisoners may work and follow their relevant trading activities and professions with the permission of the Superintendent of the Prison, and when they find their own implements and are not maintained at the expense of the prison or the State, they shall be allowed to receive the entirety of their earnings.


Section 86 states that, all corporal punishment within the prison should be inflicted in the presence of the Superintendent or a visitor and the medical officer, subject to the law for the time being in force relating to the infliction of corporal punishment.

Section 88 states that no prisoner shall be put under mechanical restraint as a punishment, but there are some exceptions as follows to this provision under section 89 and section 90 of the Ordinance.

When a prisoner is confined in an insecure place or whenever he/she is outside the walls, be put in handcuffs purely as a measure of precaution against violence, disturbance, mutinous conduct, escape, or rescue and, where the number of such prisoners being males exceeds two, they may for the same reason, be secured by a gang chain and handcuffs.

And the second exception is in order to prevent any prisoner from injuring himself or others, or damaging property or creating a disturbance, or using violence, or in any case of insubordination or mutiny, it is necessary, in the interests of discipline, to place him/she under mechanical restraint.

But in general, the time duration for such restrain should not exceed 24 hours unless a special order is made by the Commissioner-General.

Among convicts, their poor level of education was a particularly remarkable characteristic. Therefore, it is the duty of the Government to educate them about the laws and regulations and the prisoner’s rights and remedies that can be taken in a situation of violation of such rights.

Under Section 35 of the Prison Ordinance, the Minister shall appoint seven members for the Board of prison (all prison), four members for the Local Visiting Committee (each Prison), and one or more additional visitor for one prison or group of prisons.

All these members should not hold any office of state and one member cannot be a member of such two structures at the same time. These Visitors will hold the office for a period of three years.

Section 37 of the ordinance emphasises common duties of these Visitors as, to visit any prison at any time; to have free access to any part of any prison or to any prisoner therein; to inspect the condition of any part of the buildings or the premises of any prison, or any appliance or equipment provided therein for the use of the prisoners; to inspect or test the diet provided for the prisoners in any prison; to inquire into the general condition and treatment of the prisoners in any prison, and to record in the Visitors’ book or in the Logbook.


Section 39 states that a Judge of the Supreme Court, a Judge of the Court of Appeal, or a Judge of a High Court shall visit any prison at any time and to hold therein any inspection, investigation, or inquiry which he may consider necessary. Further subsection 2 of the same section states that any Member of Parliament, District Judge, or Magistrate may visit any prison, between 5.30 am and 5.30 pm on any day for the purpose of inspecting the general condition of the prison and the prisoners therein, and may record in the Visitors’ Book any observations or recommendations which he may think fit to make after such a inspection.

Through this provision also Sri Lanka has taken steps to protect the rights of the prisoner.

Other than the above statutory structural bodies and authorised persons, two other main bodies in Sri Lanka take steps to protect prisoner’s rights. They are the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners (CPRP).

On any occasion where the rights of a prisoner have been violated he/she has the right to lodge a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka or Police. And also prisoners have the right to litigate a fundamental right case in the Supreme Court.