Transformation: hope behind iron cells | Sunday Observer

Transformation: hope behind iron cells

Thushara Upuldeniya
Thushara Upuldeniya

For centuries, punishment has been seen as the antidote to restrain criminal behaviour. Over the decades, though tough punishment has been implemented globally, the human mind strangely, has not become pure or righteous. History has shown us diabolically outstanding criminals including Jack the Ripper from White chapel, London, to Ted Bundy the sadist serial killer in America, to Frank Smith the notorious “Ski mask rapist” who raped 200 women in the 1980s. Does psychological counselling redirect the criminal mind? So how does a nation’s legal system effectively reduce criminal intent? Does death sentence reduce the murder rate? Everyone is born with an unblemished conscience, how do we stain it so severely?

Ancient punishment

When our prudent kings ruled this fertile land they had their own Penal Code which was severely enforced, with the assistance of the village headman or vidhane. The ultimate punishment was, to be trampled to death by the court elephant, whose mere presence would create much fear. In the somewhat cruel list of sentences were, making one to sit on a sharp iron stake, being tied to a tree for extended hours, being buried in sand with one’s head left uncovered, having your hair combed with an iron comb that basically dislodged part of your scalp and being engaged in hard labour. The public stigma was terrible in those ancient days.

Over the decades, the British Governors realized they must have a Prison Ordinance and a refined system to hold those found guilty of violating the law. The fiscal was the prime custodian of civil law, until the Police was established in 1866. Thus, 45 acres of prime land was segregated and buildings set up. This in 1844 was the birth of the Welikada Prison, where the nation’s undesired deviant sons and daughters finally end up. Subsequently, in 1871 the gallows were constructed. For almost 172 years Welikada has seen an assortment of prisoners. With trial and error and much patience, today, the Prison Department carries out a humane rehabilitation program, which is showing positive results.

Change is a challenge

One of the key officials at Prison Headquarters is Commissioner Thushara Upuldeniya. He said, “At present there are 19,392 persons in 28 of our prisons across the nation. Of this population, we have 3,419 at Welikada’. Sri Lanka’s largest prison operations take place at Welikada, Bogambara and Mahara. In keeping with levels of security, first and second time offenders stay at Welikada. Third time offenders are dispatched to Bogambara. Repeat offenders are secured at the Mahara prison.

Why do criminals repeat their crime? Upuldeniya explains, ‘Those who end up in prison come from different backgrounds. About 80% of our inmates are kind of anti social beings, who have a low self esteem. They had minimum interaction with others. They lacked vocational skills to secure a decent employment and many were confronted with poverty. For some, their families rejected them after their first period of incarceration’.

The Commissioner says, resident inmates can spend from 3 to 30 years inside jail, not forgetting those sentenced for life, and the death penalty. It is a challenge to create an environment conducive for reforms among these despised souls. The department is focusing on 5 areas: skills development, spiritual development, education, sports and cultural awareness. The Rehabilitation Officers (non uniformed staff) play a lead role in this process. Once a person is incarcerated, a Rehabilitation Officer talks to him, explaining prison rules and what avenues they have inside to make a change. After this the prisoner meets the Superintendent of that jail and he offers the prisoner a choice of trade skills that include carpentry, bakery work, masonry, plumbing and electrical. Those enrolled in these trades are able to sit the NVQ level exams and obtain the certificate. The prison also encourages young offenders (16-22 years) to sit the GCE O/L and A/L examinations.

On Sundays, all prisoners are sent to participate in religious activity and meditation within the compound. The department has designated clergy from all religions. Through these sessions they are subject to modules such as anger management. Sudden rage has been identified by officers as a primary reason why folk assault or murder others in a situation of sudden provocation. Much emphasis is placed on tolerance via counselling, although inmates argue now and then. The occasional fight between two inmates is unavoidable.

A sport cultivates team work. Thus, all prisoners (except those on maximum security death row) have recreation time. Here, the once stubborn loners learn to interact with others and become inter-dependent as part of a team. They learn to accept defeat without violent confrontation. They learn to celebrate the victory of the winning side. Commissioner Upuldeniya explains, ‘We focus on the realm of culture. We encourage traditional forms of dance and singing. Prisoners organize dramas and entertain themselves’.

At present, all wards have television facilities and inmates get to read the daily newspapers which keeps them updated on matters in society, unlike decades ago where they were simply ‘locked up’ and left behind. The massive Welikada Prison has a 300 bed hospital with 14 doctors on duty. We are now served tea by an older prisoner clad in a red sarong and shirt. The spicy rolls made in the prison bakery are really succulent. I am told, ‘Prisoners who display good conduct work within the prison as office aides and waiters’. It builds in them a sense of self-respect. Other skilled inmates attend to all internal repairs. The Welikada Prison has a world record unknown to the public. In 1926, the Prison began a Scout troop and registered with the Imperial Scout Movement. We are the first country in the world to teach scouting in a prison.

A positive process

As often misunderstood, prisoners don’t sit in their cells the entire day. I was able to witness some of their movements.

They begin the day at 5 a.m. All must wear the white “jumper uniform”. Breakfast is served by 6.30a.m. Cooking for 3,000 persons is no easy task.

The men are put into “cooking groups” and the roster rotates. They engage in cleaning and cutting vegetables, scraping coconuts, filleting fish, etc. The Campbell Park was built in 1885, using prison labour. Again this exercise develops timing and team work. Except for those in the infamous Chapel Ward (death row cells) others engage in industrial work. Lunch is ready at 12 noon and dinner is prepared by 7.30p.m. Volleyball is the popular sport. Even those in the Chapel Ward are allowed 1 hour a day to come out of their cells (with strict security) and stretch their muscles. In addition to these routines, regular inmates can appear before Parole (License) Boards and those with positive signs of change can even go home on leave for durations of 7,10 and 14 days. The time spent with family can certainly boost their morale, but this is done with strict vetting and the Rehabilitation Officer visits the homes to check if it is suitable for the inmate to visit.

In concluding, Commissioner Thushara Upuldeniya says, ‘Prison reforms have been initiated. Priority has also been given to improve the training of prison officers and guards. Security plus harmony is vital for both, guards and inmates’. This Prison is expected to relocate close to Horana, in the future. Let us hope the number of people entering our prisons will decrease. While crime must be legally punished society has a role to play: to ensure that people are treated with respect, have a right to education with a religious input and gain a decent wage on which they can live. We can’t point our fingers accusingly at these human beings within the walls of Welikada. 

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