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Changing lives behind bars

A significant landmark along Baseline Road is the Welikada Prison. It is a building complex at which motorists and passersby don’t care to give a second glance. Yet within its vast confines are cell blocks that house men and women. They have entered the prison for an assortment of crimes from basic theft to rape and bloody murder. Entering through the main gate of the prison head quarters I sat in the lobby. A few inmates clad in maroon shirt and sarong, are going about some tasks in the administration block. Three inmates clad in white jumper (shorts) and round collar shirt sweep the garden. A mynah (bird) descends and sits on a table, tapping her yellow beak. An old inmate drops his broom and opens the garden tap and collects water in both hands. Within seconds the mynah is perched on his hand and drinks gratefully. It was a touching sight, a prisoner offering hope to a feathered friend. A guard tells me the mynah is a daily visitor.

The Commissioner of Prison Security and Intelligence Thushara Upuldeniya directs me towards the entrance of the Welikada Prison. After establishing my identity to a sergeant, we walk past three security doors, and a guard escorts me to the office of the Superintendent of Welikada, T. Uduwara, who explains “As you know the British established this prison complex in 1840. We are maintaining a large operation here, and have almost 3,000 inmates, for whom we are responsible. We try our best to maintain an atmosphere which facilitates their rehabilitation”.

Sustaining hope

 

For the first time I become aware of the surroundings. Prison inmates walk about on errands, while some paint the green border on a wall. The areas with flower beds are maintained neatly, with birds hovering about. I am joined by Rehabilitation Officer Ratnayake and the prison counsellor Kasun Senarathne. We walk round the large compound where there are ward rooms and cell blocks. The wards are similar to large dormitories, and the cell blocks (2 floors each) are home to the hardcore inmates. Ratnayake explains ‘Once the courts deliver their judgments, the prisoners are brought into Welikada.

They are subject to a medical examination by the prison doctor. We have a fully fledged hospital here. The doctor will write dietary requirements for inmates, as required. The Location Branch then filters the new inmates and checks their criminal history- some are first time offenders and others are repeat offenders. They are checked for gang affiliations. We can’t put rival gang members in one ward. The moment first timers come in they become homesick, and develop a negative mindset’.

Counsellor Kasun adds, “This is where I step in. We try and give the new inmates an orientation. They are in a state of hopelessness. I talk to them and help them understand their situation. They must confront reality. We try to give them confidence. It takes a few days for them to settle down, and with time they make friends in their wards and cell blocks and adapt to the prison routine. Those initially depressed are those sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Others also have sentences from 10- 50 years, which is a long time.”

The Welikada Prison has blocks from A to R, and is overcrowded. The famous of these is C-3 (maximum security), known among staff and inmates as the “Chapel Ward” which houses the hardcore inmates, serving in the death row. There are 420 men and 5 women. The name ‘Chapel’ is said to have derived from British administration when a tiny chapel was built here for the inmates. We passed through the rear of this block and through the barred windows I could see the inmates. Yes their crimes are terrible, and include rape and murder. Yet, analyzing how they came to this condition is another day’s deliberation. Ratnayake explains, ‘We have improved the facilities for these death row inmates. Every day they are taken outside for 30 minutes of exercise. They have access to the library, and can also go to the gym. It is mandatory that they attend Sunday dhampassal and engage in meditation on poya days. We have an inmate here who studied and obtained his degree, and is now reading for his Master’s. The university kindly sends his text books and recorded lectures. We also have adult inmates who sit the O/L and A/L exams’

Oldest bakery in Colombo

 

We proceed to another busy area inside Welikada, the prison bakery. It has been in operation since 1840, thus making it the oldest bakery in Colombo (probably in Sri Lanka) in continuous operation. Vocational Instructor Pradeep Weerasinghe is guiding his staff of 30 inmates. He explained “We are proud of this bakery. We have attained a B- Grade from the Colombo Municipal Council, for our food production and hygiene. We bake 3,000 loaves of bread daily. Each loaf is made as per prison ration and weighs 170 grams, and serves an inmate. We also bake regular loaves, and cater to inmates of the Welikada Prison, Magazine Prison and the Colombo Remand Prison”. He summons a prisoner, serving a life sentence, who brings me a loaf, steaming hot from the oven and smiles with a sense of accomplishment.

There are modern dough mixing machines, but the men take pride in their 178 year old brick ovens. There are 3 large fire wood ovens that can take in 40 trays of bread. Weerasinghe explains, “Our men work in 2 shifts. The night shift begins at 8 pm, after the inmates have dinner. This team makes the bread and finish at 5am. They get the following day off. The morning shift begins by 6.30 am and ends at 3 pm. By 10 am we have baked sugar coated buns, butter cake, sponge cake, rolls, fish buns and pastries. We sell these items at the prison canteen and welfare bakery shop. The NAITA organization awards the NVQ level-1 certificate for baking to prisoners. Once they leave, they have a skill to find work. We also accept orders for cakes and pastries. The public can contact the officer at the welfare shop’.

Path to progress

The Prison Head Quarters headed by Commissioner General Prisons H.M.N. Dhanasinghe has many other productive industries as well. They not only teach prisoners a new skill, but also give them a meaning in life with something to achieve and live for. The inmates actively make their own soap (7,500 bars a year), broom sticks (1,500 a year), and coir rugs.

 

They also stitch 10,500 prison uniforms annually along with 3,500 release uniforms (worn when they depart from jail). The men also engage in printing, using computers for digital designing. The press turns out 13,000 envelopes each year. In addition a large dairy farm is operated in Weerawilla.

We witnessed the large kitchen, where prisoners cook lunch and dinner for more than 3,000 persons. Cutting fish here is a refined art as each slice must weigh 56 grams as per the Prison Ordinance. The men keep cooking in batches as the prepared food is taken by inmate overseers. The steam laundry is another marvel inside Welikada. Until a few years ago the bed linen of the entire General Hospital Colombo was washed here.

Welikada has another unique record; it has the world’s first prison scout group founded in 1922. It has 72 inmates now who are taught by Sergeant Janaka. In addition the prisoners have their own dance troupe,who have jubilantly won state awards. In the recent past inmates have been allowed calling facilities to their homes on prior request, though each conversation is recorded. It enables them to check on the welfare of their wives and children. Religious freedom prevails as inmates can attend prayers at the Buddhist temple, Hindu Kovil, Church and Mosque built inside the premises. Sunday is a day of rest for all inmates.

The prisoners at Welikada begin their day by 6 am, and take a shower and have breakfast. A jailor takes a head count and at 7 am they are divided into working groups and sent to the above industries, under guard. By 11.30am they return for lunch and by 1.30pm it’s back to work and they stop at 4.30pm.

On returning to their cells and wards by 5pm they are counted again. Most wards have television where they watch the news and selected dramas after dinner. By 8.30 pm its lights out, except for a few who are studying for exams. Even as the prisoners are asleep the alert jailors on night duty take a final count at 1.30 am. In case of an attempted escape the guards can shoot the inmate below the knee.

Prison guards, jailors and staff play a key role in rehabilitation. They work in the Escort Branch (which transfers inmates from jail to courts), Registration Branch, Discipline Branch which reviews inmates’ progress and recommends them for Presidential pardons. MSK Branch covers guard duties, and the hospital (with 250 beds) and dispensary take care of the sick inmates. Prisoners with psychiatric conditions are carefully looked after in Ward-5 of the hospital. Those with suicidal tendencies and attention seeking disorders are subject to one-on-one counselling.

Ratnayake explains, “When inmates are released they are often not accepted by society. It happens in cities and villages. A prisoner serving a 1 year sentence, after release cannot find a job and becomes frustrated. He needs money to live and takes to crime again. Society must change the way they view released prisoners. The inmate’s families are subject to criticism and shame.”

At present there are 23,034 prisoners in Sri Lanka. This also includes foreigners, mainly on drug related charges. All inmates remain scorned by a self righteous society and rejected to a certain extent by their own families. A convict had painted on a wall- ‘the peace that you seek is within you’. Academics opine that the Department of Prisons must change their name to Department of Corrections. Rehabilitation is a gradual process. Every prisoner is a human being with a conscience and emotions. Every human being deserves a second chance to repent and appreciate the gift of life.

(Sunday Observer)

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