The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 ( sinhala & tamil) as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

The ICRC study on overcrowding in prisons is deeply depressing, not only because of the sordid picture it reveals, but also because reform would be so easy, if only there were better coordination. Unfortunately we have now in Sri Lanka built up a system in which coordination is almost impossible, and the information that should stir authorities to change things is rarely systematically collated and effectively presented.

It was the Minister of Justice who initially alerted me to the ICRC study, and much of the change has to come from institutions connected with justice. However getting the Judiciary to move is almost impossible, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice found, her plea to the Chief Justice to convene a meeting to look at the issue having fallen on deaf ears. I have been luckier, in that I have got replies to letters I sent, but the effect of these is to make it clear that nothing will be done since the judiciary is not responsible for action.

I suppose this is strictly speaking true, but I cannot understand why the judiciary will not develop norms for sentencing based on reducing unnecessary suffering as well as expense. The ICRC study notes that, ‘Out of the total admissions in 2010…… 75.7% (100,191) consisted of remandees, of whom  21.9% spent between 14 days and 1 month in remand and 25.5% (3’367) spent less than 14 days in remand’.

Since the approximate average cost per prisoner per day is Rs. 318.00, the total per month (· Estimated approx total cost for month (100,000 detainees x 30 days) is Rs. 954,000,000, ie 12 billion rupees a year, given that some months are longer.

The ICRC notes, as indeed the Human Rights Commission had previously pointed out to us, that there is ‘Inadequate use of Bail.’ Unfortunately there seems no urgency to expand the list of bailable offences, which was suggested long ago, while police tend to charge in terms of non-bailable offences since they do not want to take the risk of those they have taken in jumping bail. Neither the police nor magistrates use their discretion positively to grant bail.

To make matters worse, there is little sense of urgency about dealing with remandees. The average population in jail on any given day is around 26,000, half of whom are remandees. This latter population is not necessarily a shifting one, for in 2010 ‘258 prisoners had been on remand for over 5 years, and a further 1085 prisoners had been on remand between 2 to 5 years.  10.2% (average) of remandees had been on remand for over 2 years’.

The ICRC, as the Human Rights Commission did before, notes the ‘Effects of strict sentencing policies‘. In his budget speech the President spoke of the need to develop ‘Alternatives to Incarceration’, but the ICRC notes that there is limited use of these. Obviously the relevant authorities are incapable of translating the President’s stated policies into action, but unfortunately Sri Lanka has, despite having had an Executive Presidency for over 30 years, failed to develop the mechanisms other countries with Executive Presidencies have to ensure implementation of what the President lays down.

We find then that in 2010 ‘43.9% of the total convicted population served less than 6 months’ while  20% spent between 6 months to a year….50% of the total convicted prisoners were imprisoned due to default in the payment of fines’ whereas it would be quite simple to institute the practice of community service to allow such fines to be paid off. It does not take a genius to think of this, but I suppose putting such ideas into practice does require genius, given the current approach to reform.

The ICRC also noted that drug offenders require a ‘therapeutic approach: in 2010, persons convicted for narcotic drug offences constituted 41.6% of the total convicted admissions’. Instead of providing therapy and rehabilitation however, our system seems designed to entrench the practice, and even to promote drug dealing, since youngsters jailed for the use of drugs can readily be turned into dealers, given the culture prevalent in our prisons.

In short, our current system costs taxpayers billions, while promoting the criminalization of offenders who should be rehabilitated and who could serve the community to make up for the relatively minor offences for which they were convicted. Last year the President urged more recourse to rehabilitation, and in fact we have an experienced and efficient agency in the field in the form of the Bureau of the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, with the rehabilitation of former LTTE combatants almost completed, and no formal responsibility given to the Bureau for the all important Reintegration process, doubtless the Bureau will soon be wound up. A few years later perhaps the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms, shorn of half its title and responsibilities, will decide that they need to develop a Rehabilitation arm, and will doubtless at great expense reinvent the wheel. There will of course be many more youngsters to rehabilitate by then, because those who should be rehabilitated now would have become addicts and contributed to wider drug distribution networks.

The ICRC presented its report last year, but nothing was done about it until we called them to a meeting of the Task Force to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan. The Secretary to the Prisons Ministry who had been very positive in other respects, but not been able to move on this issue, had just retired and his successor had not taken up office. However the very practical Acting Secretary sent an officer who participated actively, so I hope that he will be able to persuade the new Secretary to take things further swiftly – while the Secretary of the Ministry of Justice must spur the judiciary to act, or else introduce legislation to ensure that the alternatives the President wants are made mandatory.

Daily News 10 Sept 2012  –