The revelation that over a dozen prison officers have been bribed by drug dealers has shined a spotlight on how corruption within the prisons system has allowed underworld drug cartels to operate even inside prisons. Authorities have now launched extensive investigations into what is regarded as the biggest scandal to hit the Department of Prisons in recent times.

Money had been channeled to these officers through the ‘e-Z-Cash’ system from abroad. The CID informed the Colombo Chief Magistrate on September 21 that ‘Wele Suda’ had channeled millions of rupees through the ‘e-Z-Cash’ system to 174 phone numbers

Seventeen prison officers at Colombo’s Magazine Prison were interdicted earlier this month after an investigation conducted by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) revealed that they had taken bribes from notorious drug kingpin Gampola Vidanage Samantha Kumara alias ‘Wele Suda’. Meanwhile, a prison officer and two guards were also interdicted in September after they were filmed facilitating a meeting between drug dealer Mohammed Siddik and another individual inside a holding cell at the Colombo Magistrate’s Court. The outsider had spent time with Siddik inside the cell. In an attempt to show him as a prisoner, prison guards were filmed handcuffing the man to Siddik. However, the individual was later filmed leaving the court house.

The fact that so many prison officers at one single prison were involved with a drug kingpin has exposed the bitter truth that a significant number of those inside the prisons system were susceptible to being ‘influenced’ by underworld criminals, particularly drug dealers.

Bribes via ‘e-Z-Cash’ system
Speaking to The Nation, Commissioner General of Prisons Rohana Pushpakumara stated that 17 officers were interdicted and disciplinary inquiries had been initiated against them. The action was taken after a report compiled by the CID identified them as having taken bribes from Wele Suda. The money had been channeled to these officers through the ‘e-Z-Cash’ system from abroad. The CID informed the Colombo Chief Magistrate on September 21 that ‘Wele Suda’ had channeled millions of rupees through the ‘e-Z-Cash’ system to 174 phone numbers.

Pushpakumara however, refuted allegations made in some media that as many as 45 officers in the Department of Prisons, including some senior officials, had taken bribes from Wele Suda. “We inquired about this from the CID and officials there were adamant that they never mentioned this figure of 45 to the media, nor had they stated that senior officials were involved. The report they have submitted only identified these 17 individuals and accordingly, action has been initiated against them,” he explained. Pushpakumara said his department did not know more details regarding the CID investigation, but added that the probe would continue separately and legal action initiated in courts.

The Commissioner General of Prisons though, stated that the officers who have been named as having accepted bribes from the drug kingpin had committed a serious offence and breached the trust placed on them by the department. He stressed severe action will be taken against anyone found to have been involved with drug dealers.

When contacted, Secretary to the Ministry of Law & Order and Prison Reforms, Jagath P. Wijeweera maintained that the Department of Prisons had initiated necessary disciplinary action against those involved. “The CID meanwhile, has been asked to conduct its own probe into the matter,” he noted.

The big question
Prof. NW Jayasundara, who lectures in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Sri Jayewardenepura pointed out that the intriguing aspect of the scandal regarding Wele Suda was that the drug kingpin had channeled money to these prison officers while he was still abroad. “He was doing this from overseas before he was arrested and brought to Sri Lanka. So, the pertinent question here is, why was a drug dealer bribing prison officers when he was not even in prison?” Prof. Jayasundara queried.

He noted it was ‘no secret’ that drugs were coming into the prison. “In fact, some former inmates have stated that some drugs that are hard to come by outside the prisons were available inside,” he said, adding such things could not be done without the collusion of some officers inside the prisons. He pointed out that there were allegations that drugs were even coming into the women’s section of the Welikada prison.

The academic said it was disturbing that such things were happening though the Prisons Department had its own intelligence division which is tasked with uncovering and eradicating such illegal activities inside the prisons.

“If you look at the Mohammed Siddik case, the matter was exposed only because a cameraman happened to be filming at the time in courts. How many such meetings could have happened without the cameras capturing it?”

The only way to ensure that such scandals do not engulf the prisons system was for the Prisons Department to take strict action against the few errant individuals engaged in such behavior and for the vast majority of honest officials in the department to conduct their duties professionally, Prof. Jayasundara stressed. In initiating prompt action against those named in the CID report, the Prisons Department has taken a positive step towards eradicating such activities, he further observed.

“The modern prisons system is designed to reform individuals who have broken the law. It would be a real tragedy if that very system turns out to be one where they are encouraged to engage in more illegal activities,” he opined.

e-Z-cacheMasterminding crimes
Police Spokesman ASP Ruwan Gunasekara acknowledged police have received numerous complaints regarding prison inmates engaged in illegal activities, including fraud, extortion, drug dealing and even masterminding murders. For example, the recent high profile shooting incident at Kotahena where two people were killed and 11 others injured, had been masterminded by underworld figure ‘Dematagoda Chaminda,’ who was in remand custody. CID inquiries had revealed that Chaminda had masterminded the shooting, which was aimed at two members of a rival underworld gang, from inside the prison.

ASP Gunasekara stated that police would become involved in such cases if it is alleged that inmates had planned crimes from inside prisons.

As authorities probe deeper into the scandal, they may yet uncover more details into how far the tentacles of drug kingpins have spread inside the prisons system. The Department of Prisons has been embarrassed by the revelations that so many of its officials were involved so deeply with those engaged in the illegal drug trade. Authorities though, have taken several positive steps in a bid to stamp out such illegal activities inside the prisons. Time will tell if these steps are enough for the prisons system to salvage its battered reputation.