Prison Reforms, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs Minister D.M. Swaminathan has called for an explanation from the prisons authorities regarding MP Hirunika Premachandra’s recent allegations that former MP Duminda Silva, who is on death row had been provided with special facilities. She alleged in Parliament that some influential prisoners were enjoying special privileges.

The allegations levelled against prison authorities by MP Premachandra are nothing new and no one appears to have got their knickers in a twist over such accusations. That is because almost everyone is aware that such assertions have been made persistently over the rampant corruption inside our correctional institutions. The violence during the Welikada prison riot that occurred on November 9, 2012 underscored both the abysmal condition of our prison system and its lack of security.

The riot broke out during a search for illegal arms and left 27 people dead and 40 injured.  Welikada has around 4,000 prisoners and has witnessed a number of violent riots in its history. The 2012 riot was the worst in Sri Lanka’s history since the 1983 riot, also at Welikada Prison, which left 53 prisoners dead.

Sri Lanka prisons are woefully overcrowded, and lamentably undermanned. They are rife with corruption and prone to high-profile break outs as was evidenced during that riot. Clearly, there was no way the raving and ranting offenders could have defied uniformed authority and run amok to the extent they did without inside complicity. Analysts perceive that much of the supposedly spontaneous indignation came across as carefully orchestrated from within the establishment.  And many agreed with such a surmise.

That is because it beggars belief that hordes of unarmed inmates were able to burst into the high-security area of prison armouries, purloin automatic weapons, storm the roof of the facility and indulge in murderous trigger-happy high jinks.  Observers maintained there had to be some inside collusion as certain corrupt prison security personnel would have been hardly overjoyed over the prospect of elite outside law enforcement units being dragooned to carry out a ‘sting’ operation. An operation they feared would damage their own lucrative contraband smuggling enterprise inside the prison.

There were worrying signs, too, that organised crime is now starting to enjoy profitable returns from targeting prisons. Officials believe that the number of guards having discovered smuggling drugs and other contraband into prisons is just the tip of the iceberg.  It is a betrayal of society and it is also treacherous to colleagues. That is because major problems of disorder are sparked by corruption and the smuggling of drugs, mobile phones and other types of contraband by prison officers.

Many assert that what the Prison Service currently has in place to tackle corruption is desolately short of what is actually needed in order to root out those officers who pose a threat to their colleagues, a danger to the public, and who bring shame on the service as a whole.  Some boldly stick their necks out and go to the extent of claiming that Welikada and our other correctional institutions are to an astonishing extent ‘self-governed’ by drug cartel kingpins.

It is an open secret that entire criminal enterprises are run from inside our jailhouse walls.

In a recent wave of telephone extortions, investigators found that the vast majority of calls demanding money originated from prisons. Security experts are convinced that current screening procedures and security interventions are ineffective because they are not sufficiently randomised, unanticipated or conducted vigorously enough to give rise to a real concern by officers that they may be detected.

It is also true that certain prison staff often tolerate conditions that deviate from ideal norms. Unless something is done about it soon violence, drug-dealing and bribery will continue to be part of the criminal subculture in prisons for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, this environment of corruption may rub off on certain prison officers who are sworn to enforce the law. Stricter anti-corruption policies and procedures may prevent or roll back a significant degree of misconduct.

Not every offence is a case in point of corruption but most of them may lead to corruption. For instance, a small gift from a prisoner to a guard may not constitute a bribe, but it can lead to systematic kickbacks down the road. Former prison officers of a bygone era contend that while most staff operate in an honest way, a significant number of officers are involved in corrupt practices. They claim that corruption ranges from bringing mobile phones and drugs into the jail to accepting cash payments from inmates for transfers to less secure blocks. Yet leading experts are of the view that in short, the service is ‘institutionally corrupt.’

Analysts say that the government must admit the scale of the problem if it is to stand any chance of tackling it. The entire nation is dismayed at the organisation’s chaotic structure and the limited ability by the authorities to tackle the illicit trade plaguing prisons. Let us hope that the parliamentary probe report following the 2012 riot will kick-start a national debate on how to tackle a problem that has huge ramifications.

Studies show that addicted prisoners will go on to commit further crimes to fuel their habits, which in turn would add to reoffending rates and lead to offenders being recycled through the system, costing the taxpayer billions of rupees. Indeed, a start should be made now to eliminate this type of blatant corruption that could lead to worse disastrous, disorder. The law must be allowed to take its course.

The jailbird grapevine has it that extravagant parties have been held by VIP inmates within the confines of prison walls. Some of these lavish bashes in violation of prison regulations are made possible by corrupt guards allowing in premium spirits, cigarettes, narcotics and other contraband items.Today for profligate criminal elements life as a VIP guest of the republic would be seen as one of Elysian splendour.  Extravagant shindigs are the order of the day with sumptuous wining, dancing and dining, with knees up in nick.  Many guilty heads will have to roll to ensure there is no repetition of the 2012 fiasco now dubbed the toxic Welikada Jailhouse Rock!