Custody. Care. Correction. You will find these three words in the emblem of the Sri Lanka Prisons Service. As the signboard of the Welikada Prison in Colombo proclaims “Prisoners are also Human”. Hence, the main objective of the prisons system is reforming individuals who have committed offences against society. Some prisoners (sentenced to death and life terms) many never enjoy true freedom again, but even they get plenty of opportunities to repent and reshape their lives inside the four walls of a prison.
Prisons are a necessary evil, in that they keep people who have committed anti-social activities away from society. The location of a prison is immaterial in terms of what it sets out to do – rehabilitate individuals who have committed crimes and other misdemeanours. But thanks to a prison system that is a legacy of the Colonial era, Sri Lanka has prisons right in the heart of many cities including Colombo. This is a sheer waste of prime real estate that can be used for alternative purposes.
The Bogambara Prison located in the very centre of Kandy was a clear example. Having rightly realised the folly of having a huge prison complex in the heart of Kandy, the Government in 2013 closed it down and moved the inmates and most equipment to another prison facility in Pallekele. However, the facility remained closed for nearly five years without any action being taken on converting it for another use.
After touring the facility on Thursday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe declared that the Bogambara prison premises will be converted into a cultural and tourism centre under the Government’s programme of developing Kandy as a tourism hub. These development activities will be conducted under the guidance and blessings of the Chief Prelates of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters, the Premier said.
Under the new development plan, the Bogambara Prison premises will be converted to a cultural venue under three phases and a park will be constructed under the first phase of the project at a total cost of Rs 400 million. The other two phases will be conducted with Japanese financial assistance.
This will come as a great relief to those who harboured fears that the land could be given over to build a monstrous but hideous high rise hotel/apartment complex or shopping centre. Kandy already has a world-class multi-level shopping centre, so another one was not needed anyway. Given Kandy’s unique topography, a high-rise complex would have been a grotesque invasion.
The proposed cultural centre will fit in ideally with Kandy’s reputation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Home to the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, the Sri Dalada Maligawa. Tourists both foreign and local will be able to learn more about the region’s religious and cultural ethos through the new cultural centre.
The authorities have to urgently address several other issues affecting Kandy. The highly polluted air is one of the biggest problems, with the city boxed in by the mountains. Improving Kandy’s air quality should be a priority project. Traffic and parking are nightmares in Kandy, though the proposed underpass (tunnel system) and the Central Expressway now under construction will address these issues to some extent. The Premier has also revealed plans to extend the Kandy city to the Gannoruwa area, which will also help to find solutions to traffic and parking issues.
It is not only Kandy that has lost economically and socially as a result of a prison being located in its very centre. Colombo has suffered a similar fate with the Welikada Prison, which occupies prime real estate. There were plans to shift the prison elsewhere and use the land and structures for another purpose, but we are not aware of any further action on this front. This project should be revived and expedited. The authorities should review locations of other regular and remand prison sites throughout the land from Mahara to Vavuniya to ascertain whether it would be economically feasible to move the facilities to other less central locations as in the case of Kandy.
There is simply no need to locate prisons in the main cities – the recently opened 65-acre prison complex in Angunakolapelessa is a fine example that proves that rural areas with plenty of bare land are the most suitable places to build prisons or similar structures. More attention should also be paid to the viability of community service centres and outdoor prisons/work camps for minor to medium offences. A large number of people languish in prisons unable to pay a simple fine thus increasing congestion - a solution should be found for this problem. Expediting court cases will ease congestion in remand prisons.
The best answer however is a righteous society where offences of every kind are at a minimum. Religious leaders, parents and school teachers have a major role to play in this regard. If everyone lives according to the tenets espoused by the great religious masters, there will be no hatred or crime in the society. Prisons will be redundant in such a society where all can live in peace.
Daily News, January 23, 2018