Fear Grips Inmates as COVID-19 Spreads in Overcrowded Prisons

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

On seeing the congestion in Sri Lankan prisons and the imminent threat of COVID-19 spread to inmates and prison officials, 10 months ago, in March, the Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) wrote to the Government to take stern measures to curb the spread of the virus in prisons.

Today, there is a “prison cluster” that originated at Welikada Prison through an apparent contact of asymptomatic Borella Police officers who were tasked with arresting suspects and handing them over to Welikada Prison officers. The suspects were quarantined for 14 days but the virus had made its way into prison. 

Initially, there were around 10 officers who had contracted the virus and according to the Prison Commissioner General Thushara Upuldeniya, there are 38 prison officials who have contracted COVID-19.  

The virus claimed 60 victims during its second wave between October and the second week of November, and the total death toll currently stands at 73. 


By Friday (20) there were 564 prison inmates infected with six deaths reported. Also in the past 10 months, four inmates succumbed to injuries while trying to ‘escape’. The current situation is causing misery and grief to the families of prison officers and inmates. The prisoners are mainly from the Boossa, Welikada, Kalutara, and Bogambara Prisons.

 “It’s difficult to guess the origin of prison cluster and how it came to be,” noted the Prison Commissioner General, adding that it is present in society and noted that the incoming inmates to Bogambara are from general society. “When it’s asymptomatic, it’s rather difficult to curtail the spread because it shows up later,” he added.

After the drug eradication mission the Government carried since last year, there have been five times more prisoners being remanded and this situation has led to overcrowded prisons. The CPRP in March promptly urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to intervene, in the light of the spread of the coronavirus, so that minor offenders can be released.

Committee Chairman, Attorney-At-Law Senaka Perera speaking to Ceylon Today on Friday reminded the danger of COVID where he highlighted that authorities should follow the Prison Ordinance where it says that prisoners must be reviewed every four years on their behaviour, so that they can be released on merit. But he claimed that this is not in practice. 

The CPRP also had suggested sending these vetted prisoners on home leave/holiday procedure and to expedite their release based on good behaviour and conduct that could reduce prison congestion. 

Perera also suggested that those with minor sentences (such as for six months), those with small fines to pay, elderly prisoners above the age of 70 years and those medically unfit should be released based on the review. 

But looking at the current scenario, such as prison activities, it needs close attention and the process should be streamlined for a better outcome despite the many restrictions imposed to control the spread of COVID. “Prisoners need a proper health check. I have been urging that all preventive measures should be taken since March 2020,” he said. 

CRCP Chairman noted that under the current condition, kith and kin of the prisoner are not allowed to visit with cooked food and other essential items. He also noted the food served in prisons is not what it used to be.

To this claim, the Prison Commissioner General noted that visitors are allowed to make a Rs 2,000 payment at the Prison Welfare Centre for essential items and leave and then those items would be delivered to the prisoner with a bill issued.

“The Media highlighted that prisoners and prison officials were infected by the virus allegedly from those remanded under drug offences, where some are drug addicts themselves which is true,” Upuldeniya noted. 

According to sources, in Boossa prison, it was a drug addict who had mingled with fishermen in the area and had infected several inmates after being incarcerated. 

According to Perera, prisons are overcrowded and are creating a fear psychosis due to COVID-19, and recently there have been protests by prisoners over several issues. “The main issues were related to the virus spread and they weren’t not trying to escape,” he alleged.

Protests, escape attempts 

On 18 November, Welikada prison inmates staged a protest demanding court proceedings be expatiated due to the pandemic. Inmates under remand custody say that if court hearings are expedited then more of them can be at least released on bail, so that they can avoid contracting COVID.  Even inmates of Kalutara prison had held a protest to hasten court proceedings, so they could avoid contracting the virus.

“The prison escape in Anuradhapura in March was due to many reasons despite prison officials claiming that it was a jailbreak. Two died during the protests, Perera claimed and one had been allegedly shot right in the forehead. 

The CRCP Chairman, wrote to the President again on 13 November reminding him of CRCP’s proposal in March to curb the virus spread in prisons and that there had been no adequate intervention. He reiterated the urgency for all prisoners and prison staffers to undergo PCR testing instead of adopting a random selection process and to also take the forwarded proposal into consideration and thereby taking necessary steps to make prisons COVID-free zones. 

He also reminded of the ‘deaths’ of two prisoners in Anuradhapura Prison on 21 March and the prisoners’ protest in Bogambara Prison on 12 November, emphasising that there had been no adequate steps to safeguard the lives of prisoners from COVID-19.

It has become difficult to implement COVID-19 health guidelines owing to the heavy congestion in prisons. Also there are minimal sanitation facilities such as toilets available for a large number of prisoners, it is evident that the environment within prisons is one which is extremely conducive for the spread of COVID-19, the letter noted. “What is not happening in those prisons are the PCR tests, according to the inmates. Only the temperature is checked from incoming prisoners and nothing is done beyond that,” he claimed

The prison authority, however, noted that coronavirus infected detainees treated at the Welikada Prison Hospital have been referred to the Kandakadu Treatment Centre or Gallella Treatment Centres. At the same time, women inmates infected with COVID-19 are admitted to the Welikanda Treatment Centre, Pallansena and Bogambara Prisons.  

“There are over 25,000 prisoners in Sri Lanka in various prisons and Perera suspects that PCR tests are not done in them and that if many are tested positive it would scare the people in the country.” But he said there is inequality in prisons as well, where some inmates are treated differently for the same crimes. 

He lamented that the suspects are not treated the same way because some come with certain political privileges.  He also noted the known inmates are older and sick and they are not given pardons even while proving good behaviour. Some of them, he says, remain as suspects for so many years. “Many can be sent home without having to live under Government expenditure or contracting COVID-19 if these issues are streamlined,” he stated. The congestion has resulted in some 100 inmates using one toilet with no proper distance maintained. “So far there is no policy decision taken on the COVID-19 pandemic. The system is not in place,” he added.

According to reports, both prisoners involved in the recent escape attempt from Bogambara, the one who died while fleeing and the one who evaded and was later apprehended, tested positive for COVID-19. “But all these are one-sided stories and no one knows how the inmate had died or what exactly transpired. Not one is allowed to visit, no investigations will be in the offing nor witness will come forward to tell what happened. This is purely a pathetic situation,” Perera noted. 

PTA detainees

Convener of National Movement for the Release of Political Prisoners, Fr. Marimuthu Sakthivel also pointed out that detainees under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) were transferred from Bogambara Prison in March.

He noted that PTA detainees were kept together and given some facilities as they were political prisoners.  

When Fr. Marimuthu Sakthivel visited the prison he got them electric fans to be fixed and the wiring was done with his initiative. “They are not like other prisoners,” he added noting that only two have been convicted and the rest are inmates whose cases are still being heard. “However, now they are not kept together but separated and made to share cells with drug addicts which is not right in the sight of upholding human rights,” he claimed. He said those political prisoners also could be released on merit. “They have not staged protests and some have been in prison for over a decade. They surely need better treatment and safeguarded against COVID-19 and dying in their cells.” He noted that around 10 PTA detainees have died in prisons.

We are preventing the spread of COVID-19 in prisons

Prison Commissioner General Upuldeniya told Ceylon Today that COVID-19 preventive measures are in place and there are no random testing but are now engaged in doing PCR tests for all inmates in major prisons where COVID-19 is prevailing. “Even prison officers are being given good care,” he added.

He also noted that all inmates are treated equally, be they PTA detainees or any other convicts and suspects; they are not seen as special cases. 

“We have streamlined many issues under the new normal and after the second wave court hearings are held via Skype,” he added.

He also added that there are no inter-prison transfers due to the virus and every new inmate is under 14 day quarantined before they are put into a cell with others and they are given a PCR tests as well as a body temperature check. “No random PCR tests are conducted and we are doing it for all,” he added.

He also briefed that new inmates are isolated and their movements restricted. He also maintained there are no COVID-19 cases reported in Jaffna and that the virus spread is only at Boossa, Bogambara, Kalutara and Welikada Prisons.

“Every prison has its own health official and we follow their guidelines,” he added. Regarding the shooting incidents that led to deaths, Upuldeniya added that Police inquiries are in progress as well as a Magistrate inquiry is being held. “The Magistrate will give his final decision on the deaths,” he added.

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