Over the last few weeks, a number of consultations have been held about measures to improve the Human Rights situation in the country. These started on an initiative of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, working together with my office as Adviser on Reconciliation. Springing from an excellent seminar series which CHA began on Reconciliation, the first of which was addressed by MPs Muralitharan, Wickramaratna and Sumanthiran, in addition to myself, moderated productively by javid Yusuf, the series of Consultations began with sessions on Prisoners, Women and Children.
We began with these because we felt that these were areas in which there was broad agreement on what needed to be done, and no ideological opposition. The only reasons for failure to move forward on policies on which there was consensus were, on the one hand the lethargy that is endemic in any governmental system worldwide, and on the other the difficulties of achieving concerted action when responsibility is so confusingly divided up between several Ministries.
I had had an inkling of such problems when the Minister of Justice mentioned a very helpful paper he had received from the ICRC about improving the situation of Prisoners, but noted that, while half the paper dealt with issues pertaining to his Ministry, the other half related to the Ministry of Prison Reforms and Rehabiliation. This had indeed been noted by His Excellency the President in the budget speech, which made some excellent suggestions about prisons, from the idealistic perspective of serving the interests of those languishing in jails, as well as the very practical perspective of reducing the unnecessary expenditure we now incur.
In Para 19 he suggested a way of reducing the numbers of those in prison because they cannot pay fines. In Para 20 he talked about using the example of the highly successful rehabilitation of former LTTE combatants to reduce the number of prisons and instead establishing rehabilitation centres. He went further and spoke of turning the minds of prisoners to sports and vocational and skills development. Sadly, as with many of the brilliant ideas in the budget, we see no progress as yet towards these ideals. I suspect we will see none until we actually develop a more practical way of ensuring implementation through line Ministries of policies laid down by the Chief Executive, which will necessitate at least a few Ministers chosen from outside Parliament, as happens in other political dispensations that have a separately elected Chief Executive.
Meanwhile I will note some of the issues that were discussed, with notes as to how we could proceed –
Prisons are currently overcrowded by 400% with 100,000 unconvicted prisoners – magistrates should be advised to refuse to remand unless it is essential, and police should be advised to charge for offences that are bailable when possible.
Reports required from institutions such as the Government Analyst’s Department can take years, while the Attorney General’s Department also takes much time to decide on cases – such institutions must be advised to adhere to strict timelines, with mandatory explanations to the Human Rights Commission or an equivalent body in case of delays
Lack of implementation of present policy recommendations – The President’s budget speech has emphasized changes in the present method of remanding improving conditions for those sentenced. The Human Rights Action plan has good initiatives but is to be implemented. When efforts of introducing counseling sessions were implemented, the prison guards opposed this idea and, instead, increased the number of guards in various prisons. The guards did not want the presence of counselors to affect their control over the prisoners and influence the prison mentality of fear.
The prisons currently have a few thousand uniformed staff and fewer than 100 out of uniform – The cadre for Welfare Officers was reduced and instead more guards were appointed. This system must be changed, and graduates should be trained in Counselling and appointed as Welfare / Education officers. Instead of dumping unemployed graduates in Ministries where they have nothing to do, they should be appointed as Counsellors (and in other areas apart from prisons) with specific responsibilities and reporting schedules
No accurate record of the arrival and departure dates of those remanded and in prison – All prisons should be required to maintain records of those committed to their care, on a schedule that records the date of release or review. Magistrates should be made aware of this requirement, and should avoid committing without a specific date. They should also avoid postponing cases when this contributes to further incarceration without due reason.
No system in place to promote rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners and remandees – Released prisoners could be assisted through loan opportunities with the collaboration of banks. A support system for rehabilitation which introduces vocational training and counseling for prisoners as well as a mid-way house once they have left prison will assist ex-prisoners to reconnect with society and prevent them from engaging in further criminal activity. Provision should be put in place for prisoners 3-6 months before they are released.
Lack of coordination between key stakeholders- Given the different institutions involved, it might be best for an independent institution without executive authority to coordinate reform of the system. The Human Rights Commission could perhaps have regular meetings of the Ministries involved as well as Police, the Attorney General’s Department and the Judicial Service Commission. This would have more authority than the current coordinating mechanism which is through UNDP. Though donors and advisers have a significant role to play, reform must be driven by those responsible for action, with an overarching body to oversee expectations.