Photo from the Daily Mirror
I’ve been to the Welikada Jail, where the recent riots and slaughter of nearly thirty people took place. It’s a strange place, right on a main road with prisoners going in and out (on work detail I guess). There’s a waiting room and a canteen and you enter through a vaguely secure tunnel. But it’s really a rather open jail. Here are my comments from an earlier visit, with some lawyers:
Welikada is an open prison. There are buildings, but the space between them is open. If you walk right you get to the garbage side, where there is an eeriely dark building playing eerie prayer music. It’s eerie. I think that’s where the extra bad people go. Walk up and you enter a sawmill. Another striking thing is that Welikada is a work prison, so the prisoners have 12-inch saws, 12-foot saws, hammers, chisels, etc. All the equipment is British, colonial era stuff. The rice is cooked in huge boilers, the vegetables are cut on huge wooden tables (with large knives, by prisoners). There’s also an enormous laundry with those heavy coal powered irons and large, industrial machines.
In another room the men are making furniture. So they have saws, chisels, vises. Looks like decent furniture, I guess. Asked what one of them was in for and he said murder. (Welikada Prison, What I Remember)
The issue with Welikada is that, well, it’s a jail and people want out. I think it’s definitely not as horrific as, say, American jails but there are still obviously drugs and weapons inside. Whenever there’s a search prisoners get riled up, and this time things seem to have gotten way out of hand. I mean, there were prisoners on the roof holding assault rifles.
What makes this so much worse was that all of this happened essentially in the middle of town. Prisoners could walk five feet out and catch a trishaw, indeed, they’re still looking for some that escaped. It also meant that the riot snarled traffic and injured civilians, like photojournalists. Which makes you wonder why the prison is even there.
In fact, they are going to move the prison from that big and valuable block of land, just as they’re also moving the prisons out of central spots in cities like Kandy. What has happened is that the prison system really hasn’t changed since colonial days, so you get spots that were once on the outskirts that have now had a city spring up around them. I mean, the Kandy prison is near a shopping mall. At the same time, conditions haven’t really changed either, and we obviously have more prisoners.
So it’s a bad situation overall. They need to move the prisons out of city centers ASAP, and make them more humane as well. Wouldn’t hurt to reform the justice system as well, but that may be too much to ask.