By Rusiripala Tennakoon –
This write up is an account of the recollections of my experiences at the Mahara prison as a detainee in December 1982. My sojourn was very short, only a few weeks, but many things discussed now as happenings inside the Prison, have a resemblance to what I witnessed then. Although the public attention remains heavily focused to these affairs in the context of the pandemonium that arose, things have continued over a long period of time unnoticed. Matters discussed today, following the recent mayhem, appear to be characteristic features of common occurrence inside the prison. Some incidents eye-witnessed by us will provide considerable insight to the life and activity there as firsthand information.
In the ongoing debate now about the Mahara prison after the recent fracas, people tend to forget that prisons are institutions established within a criminal justice system: where those under charges not yet proven before a court of law may be held in custody until their trial while those found guilty of crimes at trial are sent there sentenced to varying periods of imprisonment. But essentially, a prison is a special kind of premises in which people are legally held whether they have committed a crime or pending justice on account of an alleged crime.
Under Authoritarian or dictatorial regimes, prisons are used as a tool for suppression of opposing political views. Hand- picked victims are imprisoned for alleged political crimes, often without trial or other legal due process. What I have set out here will serve as examples of all these which the readers can surmise.
My account will not be complete without an explanation as to how I happened to be there. Immediately after the First presidential election held in this country, there was a massive campaign of political victimization launched by the JRJ Government during which several activists who supported the main opposition candidate were arrested and detained under various charges. Late Vijaya Kumaratunga who played a leading role in the election supporting Presidential candidate Hector Kobbekaduwa, was arrested in November 1982 and was kept in solitary confinement for a period over three months in the Welikada prison. Several others including, former PM Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka, Minister Felix Perera, Ossie Abeyagoonasekera and close associates of Vijaya were arrested and taken into custody. The charge was, conspiracy to assassinate the President and planned violence on 20-10-82.The alleged operation was named as the ‘Naxalite coup’.
Another parallel terror campaign was launched in many parts of the country leading to the arrest of SLFP political activists, and 36 of them were indicted in a special High Court with as many as 42 charges each, connected to an alleged distribution of a fake Rice Ration book before the presidential election. Several 100s were arrested by the police from all parts of the country who were remanded. I happened to be the 35th accused and after a trial that lasted 150 days I was one among those acquitted. My layover in the Mahara Prison came about in this connection.
I was contacted by late DIG, Premadasa Udugampola from the Gampaha Police Division in November and asked to call over as early as possible to get a statement on a complaint made against me and indicated that I should come prepared to stay over! I went to the Gampaha Police Station on 22nd Nov 1982, with my lawyer. A police Inspector by the name Dodampahala recorded my statement. He showed me the complaint made by a person named R.A. Dharmasena has made on 15th Nov. alleging that I have handed him fake Rice Ration Books.
I Quote from my statement to indicate how the case was fabricated against me; “After the election I had the opportunity of going to the Mirigama Police Station in a matter connected with V.A. Weerasena of Pallewela. The complainant R.A.Dharmasena was seen by me seated on a bench in the police station and when I came out he walked up and spoke to me. He was in a state of unrest showing fear. He pointed at a lorry that was parked opposite the police station on the main road and told me that was the lorry in which he was brought to the station and it belonged to the present M.P.of Mirigama. He informed me that he was detained in some place by persons at the instigation of the M.P.for Mirigama and was compelled to make a statement against me alleging the distribution of Rice Ration Books. I told him to state the truth………he agreed to do so but told me that he would be assaulted if he did not say that I had a hand in giving out these Rice Ration Books.”!
The police Inspector appeared to be not interested in verifying what has actually transpired. Immediately after taking down my statement he proceeded to comply with a clearly noticeable pre-conceived plan and typed out a ‘B’ report to produce me before the Attanagalla Magistrate at his residence. Representations made by my counsel moving for bail were not considered but he sent me to remand only for 7 days. It was very clear that he was regretting for what he was doing. After being locked up in the police cell until the arrival of the Black Maria from Mahara I was taken to the prison at about 8 pm.
After the registration formalities, I was assigned a number and was told that I would henceforth be called using that number. There were about 6 to 7 other persons who were brought in along with me, some convicted and others on remand. We were marched to a large open area close to the office complex of the Prison. A jailor who was standing there asked us to take our meals. There was a bucket full of rice and another with some gravy. There were some aluminium plates. Others with me served themselves while I stood watching. The jailor then beckoned me to come closer to him and asked me, whether I am not eating? I told him I have had something already. Then he asked me whether I was a convict Or on remand . When I told him I was on remand on a complaint for distributing a fake ration book, he asked me whether I am employed. When I informed that I was working in a bank, he jumped up as if he was bitten by a serpent and using a language that no decent person would put to pen, insulting and yelling in filth …said “why the F……you distributed a fake ration books while working in a bank”. He knew nothing of what has happened but passed his own judgement. My eyes were full of tears and it was very difficult for me to bear up that dastardly harangue. When I was looking round helpless, a guy in our group gestured me not to talk. I learnt my first lesson in the Prison not to talk back come what!
In the recent prison fracas various parties allege that the prisoners who went to complain about their own health hazard because of Covid-19 infected prisoners, they were ill- treated by the prison officials. It is not difficult to believe this version. Normally the prison officials are offensive and highly provocative in dealing with detainees.
Then the prison officer who escorted me to the prison came there and asked me to follow him because I had told him while coming that I am on some medication and I need medical assistance. He took me to the prison hospital and lodged me there. To my utter surprise it was a clean place with proper bed linen and sanitized floors like in a normal hospital. This was the better side inside the Mahara prison. The inmates gave me a warm welcome, and exchanged pleasantries in friendly conversation. I noticed that these inmates were very humane and for a moment my thoughts went back to what our University students would have done to a fresher in contrast. My first night out in Mahara prison was peaceful and nice!
Following morning around 9 -9.30 am I saw a prison officer coming in calling out my number loudly. He asked me to collect my things to go with him. While walking behind him through the prison buildings I asked him where he
is taking me. He said he is taking me to a normal prison ward. When I told him about my illness
he asked me to contact the prison doctor later. A jailor to whom I was handed over took me inside a hall and
locked the door. It was packed to capacity. From one end to the other there would have been about 400 prisoners. I walked through the crowd looking for some space to sit down. While I was moving up some one came shouting “ ape manthri thuma”. I recognized him as the person whom I went to see at the Mirigama Police station.
He was a carpenter from a village in the in Mirigama elctorate ,remanded before me allegedly for distributing rice
ration books. His calling me as ‘ape manthri’ attracted the attention of some inmates who came running towards me shouting ‘ where is the fellow’. I immediately sensed the danger of being mistaken for an MP and I would soon become the victim of their wrath. I raised both my hands and said loudly that I am no MP but I am only the SLFP
organizer of Mirigama. Then they cooled down and led me towards the other end of the hall. I praised my wits for the narrow escape I had. Had I not disclosed my identity they would have dealt with me in a highly repulsive manner. One person brought a mat for me to sit. Another quickly prepared a plain tea into an empty sardine tin. They saw I was in a highly disturbed state of mind and tried to console me assuring their support.
Life inside that ward was inexplicably mind boggling. The place was full of cigarettes smoke, cigars and the burning smell of leaves which they told me is due to smoking ganja inside. In a few minutes my head started to reel as I could not bear to stand the smoke. I wanted to go for a call of nature and one guy took me near a bucket that was in a corner. There were two of those kept side by side, one for drinking water and the other to urinate into. It was an incredible experience. I met quite a few inmates who are there for many years for not being able to pay small sums as fines and others who could not provide bail money.
After sometime, I heard a jailor shouting my number. He informed me there is a visitor for me. My brother has come with some meals. I informed him the conditions I was facing and asked him to arrange the prison doctor to see me. I felt I may not live to see another day. Few hours later I was produced before the prison doctor and sent back to the prison hospital.
Soon I realized what I have missed during the time I was out. Right in front of my bed was a pool of blood covered with some sheets and the person who was in the bed missing. An inmate told me a few hours ago the person sleeping opposite my bed was murdered. Another prisoner who had barged in with a spike made out of a straightened bucket handle had stabbed him. What a miraculous escape for me. If I was not moved out for a few hours I would have been an eye witness of the murder scene.
This shows that rivalry among prisoners and the chances of some- one becoming a victim of a murder plot is not uncommon. Life is not safe even inside a prison! Can such a thing happen in a place where the prisoners are constantly under some kind of watch, subject to precaution and unrelaxed vigilance? In our prisons they are left to themselves. When something happens some explanation is given which no-body cares to take any note of.
The nights in the hospital were really interesting. All would come round and start some conversation.
Some confessed what they have committed while a few were repenting heavily for being victimized wrongfully.
Nevertheless, they were a happy bunch trying to make the best out of the time. I noticed that they were also highly principled. Once I mentioned that some cigarettes in my cupboard were missing, they held a meeting and wanted to start an investigation. I said I may have made a mistake and avoided an unnecessary development. But I felt that most of them were feeling bad about what has happened.Once a week each prisoner is given a slice of meat about 6 ozs. On that day they collect all pieces and fry them and eat together. They make tea inside and light a fire in aboriginal style,because match boxes are prohibited inside.
There is much talk going on about some kind of tablets being used by the prisoners from the hospital. From what I saw there is some truth in it. The hospital orderly at the time was a prisoner convict called Sambu Dharme. He is a very regular fellow to that prison. When he finishes one term of punishment he commits a crime and get in again. Every time he comes in he is put to serve as the hospital orderly and is popularly known as an expert of the job.
One day he asked me to tell the doctor that I cannot sleep well. The doctor prescribed some sleeping tablets which they shared among them. I do not know about a tablet making them violent but I know there are tablets similar to Valium and Librium which are administered to sedate patients. I was told that in strong doses such tablets give them some kick. I learnt that if any- body who could afford wanted drugs or Ganja, there were ready suppliers inside.
There should be much more to imprisonment than a mere punishment given. It has to be regarded as a correctional facility. Jail should be a place to provide a background for a person to correct his mistakes.
Worse crimes are taking place inside the prisons. Most prisoners come out as worse criminals than they were before. They spend a period of hatred while they are inside mainly due to the harassment by those who serve to look after them. If from day one a person is hated, not cared for, with no one to give a hearing to any grievance, can there be any correction?
When the very conditions one is subject to lack basic human facilitation that itself yield to worsen the mental conditions. If correction means bringing a person into conformity with accepted social standards, it will be the responsibility of authorities who hold them in custody to provide such an environment. Otherwise they are committing a crime.
My own short experience is that a prison can be a haven for the weary and hated provided the conditions are more human. Overcrowding, denial of basic human facilities, provocative and insulting behaviors of authorities, officials stooping down to acts of abuse and insolence are the contributory factors for eruption of violence in the prisons. It is more than a joke for the prison authorities to rationalize prison riots by attributing drugs and other external influences. Because without their support nothing can happen. It is pathetic to note that the prison officials are taking the law to their hands to punish those in remand custody before the courts impose punishments. All jailors and prison officers should be given some basic training on human relations. They have to be educated that prisoners are forcibly confined and denied a variety of freedoms under the authority of the state and there is no justification for the prison officials to add to those.