Not Welikada, the cell where the last King was kept. I have only mental pictures of Welikada.
Today there have been riots in the Welikada Prison. About a year ago I visited the prison with a group of young lawyers. This is what I remember about the place.
The wall of the Welikada prison has an image of a mother holding a baby, the same as you find in trishaws. The other curious thing is that prisoners are always walking in and out, on work detail, whatever. Families wait in a holding area across from the canteen. We walk in through the narrow but not insanely secure gate.
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.
On the far left (as you walk in) there’s the foreign prisoners ward. These guys tend to be drug smugglers – fair, asiatic looking guys from Afghanistan and Pakistan who basically have no hope in hell. They show me their documents and complain about their embassies being unresponsive, but drug smuggling is what it is. Unless you’re a politician doing it, you’re not like to get much understanding.
Overall, the prison is actually nice. The gardens are well-kept, there’s places of worship for the major religions. There’s one ward for artists, musicians, dancers. There’s another for high-risk prisoners, former cops, rats (for lack of a better word). I say nice in an aesthetic sense. It’s old colonial architecture, open concept, whatever. It’s still not a nice place to be. The comfort of any place breaks down to the bathrooms and the people. I didn’t see the bathrooms, but I can imagine. The people are also fairly rough, under the edges, and armed with heavy, colonial-era tools.
It’s also a place that you can’t leave. If you’ve ever been arrested, you can be in decent comfort, but you still really want to leave, and no one will talk to you. You can’t really communicate with your family, but more than anything else, no one in authority listens to you, except at certain specific times, which you wait for like the dawn, and which almost all turn out to be disappointing. You tell your story over and over again to people that don’t listen or give a shit and then you end up back in the same place. It sucks. And this is how middle-classes are treated in jail, ie me. Lower classes are often treated like dogs, or worse.
The guy Shramantha, who killed a girl and dragged her down the Royal Park stairs, he gets out on furlough and hits the clubs in Colombo now and then. I don’t know if other prisoners get that. There’s guys in there on dope charges who can’t get, like, Rs. 2000 of bail money together because nobody outside is going to take that risk (of being accountable). Though people do get furlough. There are guys who’ve murdered or raped who also have their stories, but they’re not happy in there either.
The latest update from the prison is that 19 inmates and a guard have been admitted to hospital. I think a building has been set on fire, or is getting there. God know what’s going on in there, aside from the actually pleasant experience ‘just visiting’ the place is overcrowded, built to 1840s requirements and not updated since, and they’ve been planning to move it out of Colombo for years.