The riot in Sri Lanka’s Mahara prison on November 29 , in which 11 inmates were killed, has turned the spotlight on the alarming conditions in the country’s prisons, only magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic that has not spared even highly guarded prison cells. Eight of the 11 victims were found to be COVID-19 positive.
The prison riot less than a fortnight ago is the starkest reflection yet of the anxiety of inmates — there were other protests and attempted escapes reported in the past weeks — as COVID-19 raged through their crowded cells. At least 187 at the Mahara prison had tested positive and other prisoners, who were in no position to maintain physical distancing or access tests at their will, feared for their lives. Officials said dozens of inmates agitated that Sunday evening, taking two prison wardens hostage and destroying property, while some tried to escape. In addition to the 11 who died, over 100 prisoners were injured as guards opened fire.
If those within the prison walls caused unrest, as officials told the media later, their families outside panicked with little or no information. Six days after the incident, Thilini* stood on top of the narrow lane leading to the entrance of the prison in Mahara town, a 45-minute drive from Colombo. “I have come every day since the news of the riot, because I want to know if my son is alive, injured or has got COVID. They aren’t telling us anything,” she told The Hindu . “The day after the riot, my son called and said ‘there is a problem here, I don’t know if I will die’. I am not sure how he called, but I have not heard from him since,” said Chandra*, her eyes tearing up. At least 50 people like them had gathered there last weekend, voicing similar anxiety and desperation about their sons, brothers and fathers in prison. So far, officials have not released a full list of names of inmates who died or were injured, in public domain. Families have been contacted privately, they said.
“Eight of the 11 bodies have been identified by the families,” police spokesman Ajith Rohana told The Hindu . The troubling development has at once raised many questions about the rights of prisoners, as well as their health and safety. “There is a big spread inside the prison. Let alone maintaining one-metre physical distancing, inmates are often in touching distance inside those crammed cells,” said Sudesh Nandimal, secretary, Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners, an activist network. “From the information we got, COVID positive patients were right beside others. The inmates got restless and some even climbed the roof, demanding attention.”
The condition of Sri Lankan prisons has dominated Parliament debates in the past week, although civil society activists have been flagging the problem of overcrowding since March, when Sri Lanka experienced its first wave of COVID-19. Sri Lanka has four prisons for convicts, and 18 remand prisons, in addition to training camps.
The prisons currently accommodate over 30,000 prisoners, officials said, which is more than thrice their capacity. In July, the Commissioner General of Prisons, Thushara Upuldeniya, said in a televised interview that prisons “in and around Colombo and other major cities” were operating at nearly “400% capacity”.
The problem was clear and well known, but little action followed. Earlier this month, Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission urged the government to take immediate steps to address the problem of overcrowding. The Commission has also recently released an 863-page report based on a study of prison conditions, with detailed recommendations for prison reform.
On Thursday, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa instructed relevant authorities to “look humanely” at grievances of prisoners and address them immediately, a statement from his office said.
According to officials, a total of 2,643 prisoners and 94 prison staff are COVID-19 positive as of Thursday. “In a week’s time, about 7,000 prisoners are likely to be released on bail. That will help ease the congestion to an extent,” Mr. Rohana said. Meanwhile, prison authorities said about 500 antigen tests were being done every day, and inmates testing positive are immediately transferred to quarantine centres or hospitals for treatment.
“The recent prison riot is a black mark for this government. That is why you see some in the government spreading false information, claiming that the rioting prisoners were drug users,” said Mr. Nandimal, who has himself been a prisoner from 2007 to 2013, after he was detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, for engaging in “illegal activities”. He was also a witness to the infamous 2012 Welikada prison riot in Colombo, in which 27 inmates were shot dead by the police.
The reference to narcotics in prisons came not only from politicians. Most families who were outside the Mahara prison said their relative was in prison on charges of “kudu” or drug trafficking, though some emphasised they were “false allegations”.
For some time now, prison authorities, too, have been preoccupied with the supply of narcotics inside prison compounds. Following the November incident, the paramilitary Special Task Force has been deployed in Sri Lanka’s prisons for heightened safety, according to Prisons Department Commissioner and spokesman Chandana Ekanayake.
“Prisons in several countries are faced with this problem of drugs. We have taken a host of measures here, by jamming telecom signals to prevent communication and increasing surveillance by special search teams to ensure there is no chance of narcotics entering the premises,” he told The Hindu . “We will fully stop it.”
Sri Lanka’s narcotics problem is not unrelated to overcrowding in prisons, either. According to DIG Rohana, as many as 18,000 suspects were arrested last year alone, on charges of drug trafficking. Addressing the challenge was among President Rajapaksa’s key poll pledges ahead of his election last November. “Of those, 8,000 are in remand, while 10,000 are out on bail,” Mr. Rohana said. Earlier this week, police seized 200 kg of heroin and ice worth over $1 million in Marawila, in the North Western Province.
The recent prison riot was as a reality check. Amid Sri Lanka’s persisting second wave — cases number over 30,000 — the violent incident showed how the triple challenges of the pandemic, a flourishing narcotics trade and poor prison conditions in Sri Lanka converged, eventually resulting in the death of 11 unarmed inmates.
(Names of family members were changed upon request)