Of Prisons and Police
Posted on November 25th, 2012

by Gamini Gunawardane Rtd. Senior Dy. Inspector General of Police

 The prison riot that occurred  weeks ago is perhaps the worst that happened in this country. There have been many upheavals in our Prison system from time to time, each becoming worse than the previous one. But no lessons seem to have been learned and no real long term strategies seem to be adopted to avoid repetition, having gone into the core issues ailing the prison system, other than perhaps appointing a retired army officer to head the prisons, which in my view is a naƒÆ’†’¯ve approach of the government that seems to think that militarization is their only remedy to deep seated problems in organizations. In fact, there are again some ominous rumblings that Police Department is to be made another arm of the Military establishment on the retirement of the present incumbent. I hope this is untrue. Needless to say it will be another disaster. The fact of the matter is that in a few weeks’ time the present incident in the prisons will be forgotten. And it will be business as usual until the next explosion takes place. This is called Management by crisis.

  Reflecting on this incident, I am reminded whilst in retirement, some of the things that the Police and the Prisons did together, when I was the Senior D.I.G. in charge of Crimes, Criminal Intelligence and Organized Crime in the years 1997/1998. (This account was first published in the Sunday Island of 8th Sept. 2002, shortly after the prison riot at Tangalle, which at that time was the worst. I thought that it will be useful to revisit this account after 10 years as I feel the contents of that article is still very valid.) In this capacity, as Snr. DIG Crimes, I was strongly conscious of the fact that any success in enforcement activity against crime could not be achieved by Police functioning alone, but only through the synchronization of the entire Criminal Justice system. Working in water tight compartments was not getting us anywhere. We had no way of getting this message across to the A.G.’s Department, Judiciary and the Ministry of Justice effectively, but there was a possibility of collaborating with the Prisons at Department level. An opening for this appeared with the killing of Jailor Tennekoon who was shot dead by unknown gunmen at Dematagoda when the Jailor was going home after work. Jailor Tennekoon was known as an officer who was fighting a lone battle against the Drug pushers inside the Prisons. This, I think, was the first time that a Prison officer had been physically attacked for doing his job.

I thought this was a new low that the law enforcement in this country had hit and also that it was an indication of the extent to which drug dealers had been emboldened owing to the all round deterioration of the law enforcement in the country. I contacted Mr. W. E. Karalliyadde, the then Commissioner General of Prisons who was my schoolmate and apprised him on the seriousness of this situation. I explained to him the need for co-operation between our two agencies if we were to get anywhere in our battle against crime and drugs. Mr. Karalliyadde was only too glad to be helped in his crisis. Consequently, the two of us met one evening, with the top brass of the Prisons Department, Messes. P. A. Herbert, Commissioner of Prisons, Assist. Superintendents Kenneth Fernando, Venura Gunawardane, Sarathchandra and Ranasinghe and, my top officers, Messes R. N. Benjamin, Director Crimes, C. L. Ratnayake, Director Narcotics Bureau and Mahinda Hettiarachchi, Director Criminal Intelligence, in a meeting held at the Senior Police Officers’ Mess. It transpired at this meeting that the Prisons Department was plagued with many serious problems and that unless some immediate solutions were found, the country would be facing a grave law and order problem. Mr. Karalliyadde had already launched himself into the task bravely, but was fighting a lone battle.

The immediate causes of the problem that needed remedying, were easily identifiable. They were mainly, the overcrowding of prisons, shortage of trained officers, corruption among them, drug pushing in the prisons and general deterioration of prison administration, over time. Due to paucity of personnel, the food parcels of prisoners could not be properly examined for drugs smuggled in. Owing to lack of space in the reception area, the new prison entrants could not be properly sorted, to pick out the new drug addicts who could be immediately sent for rehabilitation. So they were all herded together with the hard addicts. In a short time, the first offenders too had graduated into higher ordination.

There were no properly equipped rehabilitation facilities within the prisons. Encroachers had built their huts with the perimeter walls of the Colombo prisons as their mainstay; hence those living in them whose menfolk were inside, had a constant contact supplying over the walls all their drug requirements! Some of the corrupt prison staff also came from the immediate surroundings of the Colombo Prisons itself, and you know where! So it was all home and home. On the administration side, the sewerage system of the Welikada prisons with clay drainage pipes which were well over 125 years old, had collapsed and the excreta was flowing across the prison compound. The prison staff had got so used to it that they called it the Pathaha (“the fountain”). They would hold their noses and merely jump over the stream to cross. The prisoners have had no replacements of the “ƒ”¹…”jumpers’ and were hiding their private parts which peeped through the tatters. There were so few water taps provided to prisoners, that it was customary to wait patiently in a queue for the wash, after their morning ablutions.

The prison staff had only a single set of uniforms. Their shoes and caps had not been replaced for five years due to lack of funds. They had no rain coats at all. They were still using shot guns while the underworld elements in prison custody were being gunned down with machine gun fire inside court houses and while prison escapes were common. No officers had been sent out for any local or foreign training or exposure for a long time, to upgrade themselves. We decided on priorities. (a) Areas for police to help, (b) areas for joint action and (c) the administrative measures that Mr. K would take. In regard to the drug problem, Director Narcotics would send the list of drug dealing Prison Officers to the Commissioner General who would transfer them to different prison locations; this, in order to break up the drug cartel within the Welikada prisons. Mr. K will immediately create a partition in the reception area to provide space for examining food parcels and for sorting of new prisoners, on admission. Director Narcotics would send Narcotics dogs to prisons periodically to smell the food parcels and the prison wards and work areas. He would send his men to conduct body searches both on prisoners as well as on suspect prison staff. This was to be done jointly with a striking force that Mr. K would set up drawn from among the few honest prison officers he could muster.

Regarding increasing the staff, Mr. Karalliyadde already had in his hands over 4000 applications for recruitment. The delay was because the politicians were insisting that only their nominees should be recruited. Now however, owing to the urgency of the matter, we decided to go ahead with the selections even on those lines because the deadlock was putting the prison administration in serious jeopardy. We decided to meet once a month and review our progress. One of the first things that I did thereafter was to throw a party for prisons and police officers at the Reserve Police Officers’ Mess. This was in order to break barriers and promote better understanding between prison and police officers of Colombo district. The idea was to have a better supervision of criminals and also to promote exchange of information of crime and criminals.

The party was attended by Commissioner General himself on the Prisons side and D.I.G. Colombo, Mr. Jagath Jayawardane and his officers in Colombo and Greater Colombo where the crime was heaviest. Exchange of information through informal contact between Police and Prisons community was a great source of criminal intelligence in the olden days. It had since gone into disuse due to the water-tight compartmentalization of the Criminal Justice System, over the years. In a short time, Mr. Karalliyadde had the selection of the new recruits completed. He was ready to recruit 800 men and women. But his training facility could take in only 60 trainees at a time. At that rate, it would have taken him over 3 years to put them through an induction training of three months. To overcome this problem, we decided that they could be trained in the several police training facilities during the off seasons. We also thought if we could put them through a fairly rigorous training by the police trainers with prisons input coming from the Prisons department trainers, we may be able to change the prevailing culture among the present prison staff, as we would be introducing 800 well trained young men into their midst.

The idea was to create a more professionalized group who will be proud of their job and their ability. This was to be a strategy to break through the prevailing corrupt value system in the prisons environment. We thought we would also give them training in handling the latest fire arms like the T 56 and AK 47 etc. At my suggestion, Mr. Karalliyadde approached I.G.P. Mr. W. B. Rajaguru with these requests. Before that, I had apprised the IGP of the benefits that will accrue to the crime controlling effort of the police through this means. Mr. Rajaguru obliged. He not only issued orders to the training wing but also agreed to release the T 56 ammo necessary for training, on loan pending replacement by prisons when they received their stock. He also agreed to Mr. Karalliyadde’s request to include their ammo requirement too when we ordered our ammo importation, which in turn saved a great deal of time and expenditure for the prisons in going through a parallel protracted tender process. The I.G.P. also agreed to loan the prisons department uniform material from the forward stock of the police department temporarily, pending replacement later.

Training commenced almost simultaneously at the different police training establishments in different parts of the country. Both Mr. Karalliyadde and I visited the trainees as well as the training staff at these places during the training from time to time to talk to both parties and also check on the progress. We spoke to the trainers and impressed on them the intended special role of these new products. We impressed the same message on the trainees, that they were a special set of people who were going to change a culture in an organization. At the end of the training, all the training institutions as usual, held a grand passing out parades for the new officers and men, to be seen by their parents and relatives. Mr. Karalliyadde insisted that I should be the Chief Guest at all these ceremonies. In the meantime, Mr. K. had addressed the administration issues on his own steam. He had started work on eliminating the “Pathaha” by mobilizing prison labour. He had expedited the construction of the prison complex at Kuruwita. There was also another complex under construction at Boossa. It was anticipated that the congestion in the Colombo and Negombo prisons would be eased significantly once these two facilities were ready.

Up till 1997, the Prisons Department had been receiving only a small Capital and Maintenance Vote. But Mr. K. was able to get the renovation of several dilapidated prisons – Kuruwita, Mahara, Kalutara, Tangalle, Weerawila, Pallekelle, Anuradhapura, Badulla and Polonnaruwa – done by using prison labour. He was able to achieve all these objectives due to his able Civil Engineer Mr. Kaluarachchi who became a tower of strength to him. By 1998, he managed to get a block grant of Rs. 70 million approved to attend to the balance maintenance work. In the year 1999, he obtained a token allocation of Rs.50 million through a special Cabinet paper, to shift the Bogambara prisons to Pallekelle by constructing a modern High Security Prison at a total cost of Rs.400 Million. An Australian consultant to advise the designers was got down. Government approved to release a further allocation of Rs.350 Million to continue this project through the year 2000. He further obtained from the Defence Ministry 150 acres of land in Weerawila to build another Prison to be used as a Drug Treatment Centre and to house the prisoners serving sentences for minor offences, in order to separate the minor offenders from contamination with the hardened criminals. A population analysis showed that Vayamaba which was both geographically and population wise one of the largest provinces in the country, had no prison other than a small lockup.

The relatives of the prisoners of this province imprisoned in far away prisons were put to further economic and other hardships when they wanted to see their imprisoned kinsmen. Hence, Mr. Karalliyadde had made representations to the Vayamaba Co-ordinating Council who readily released 45 acres for this purpose. This prison has since been opened. In order to create and sustain a stronger internal system, I suggested to Mr. Karalliyadde to set up a Prison Reward Fund to encourage the honest prison officers who were active in stamping out drugs from the prisons. I gave him a copy of the rules of the Police Reward Fund to use as a model. He quickly obtained permission from the Justice Ministry Secretary to start a Reward Fund but had no funds. After some time, Mr. K came up with an innovative idea rare among public servants of this country. He decided to rent the outside wall of the Welikade Prisons as advertising space. With permission from the Justice Ministry he leased this space to a private sector company and raised a sum of Rs. 300,000 to start the Prison Reward Fund.

This was done through the Prisoners’ Welfare Association headed by rtd. High Court Judge Mr. Ananda Grero. One half of the money so raised was invested in a deposit account in the Savings Bank and the rewards were to be given out from the interest generated. By the second and the third joint review meetings, most of the decisions taken at the first meeting were operative in full swing. On the information provided by the Narcotics Bureau, the drug pedaling prison officials were transferred helter skelter and the drug supply network was effectively disrupted. This was despite the threats issued by their patron saints in the underworld. A clear indication that we had struck the nerve centre was that some of the prisoners started trying to scale the walls and becoming violent without their regular supply. This enabled the prison administration to easily identify the inmates who needed immediate treatment and they were sent to the Drug Rehabilitation Centres in the prisons at Pallekelle, Taldena and Pallansena in Kochchikade. After the creation of space for proper inspection of the meals brought to prisoners from outside, and coupled with the Narcotics dogs’ visits, effectively sealed the other avenues for drug trafficking into the Welikada prisons. By being able to deal an effective blow on the prisons drug network, law enforcement authorities were able to hit back at the killers of Jailor Tennekoon. We thought that he had not died in vain and also that, that was the fitting tribute the man who fought a lone battle. With a little foreign exposure in Malaysia and China Mr. Karalliyadde had realized that the methods of rehabilitation adopt in Sri Lanka were orthodox. He had found that more advanced methods were in operation in these countries.

In Malaysia, he learnt of the Community Theraputical method. At an Anti-Drug conference in China, he had met a Mr. Aloysious Joseph who had himself been a former drug addict rehabilitated and now the Executive Director of a New York based wealthy NGO named Daytop devoted to rehabilitation of drug addicts. He was willing to assist in the Sri Lankan effort. By this time, Mr. Karalliyadde had already heard of the success achieved by Ms. Kiran Bedi (DIG) in the Delhi Prisons, through Buddhist Vipassana meditation. Emboldened by the success so far with stamping out the drug menace from the prison system, Mr. Karalliyadde next ventured out do the same at the Negombo prisons where some of the main drug suspects were detained. Together we inspected this prison to plan out the strategy. We found the Prisoners’ Welfare Association of Negombo and Pallansena were very supportive of Mr. Karalliyadde’s idea of initiating a Theraputical Community Rehabilitation Centre at Pallansena.

They offered to raise the required funds from the public. Mr. Aloysious Joseph who visited Sri Lanka on his way to India was taken to Pallansena and was explained the strategy by Mr. Karalliyadde and the President of the Negombo Prisoners’ Welfare Society. Mr. Joseph observed that nowhere in the world had he encountered this kind of community support for such projects and was keen to associate himself with this project. Accordingly, Justice Ministry approval was obtained to proceed with the erection of the necessary buildings with public funds. This institution was intended to function as a complete rehabilitation centre for drug addicts, to help them to adjust themselves to lead a normal life after release. In short, to ensure that they do not slip back into the old way of life again. Mr. K. sought the assistance of Ven. Kuppiyawatte Bodhanada Thero who ran his own drug treatment centre, in this effort.

Mr. Karalliyadde’s idea was that the prisons should be developed to be able to finance itself one day, other than paying the salaries of personnel, while my idea was that not only this, but that the prisons should not be a place where the anti-social elements are kept in detention to prevent them from harming the society; but it should also become a place that would reform the prisoners and send the majority of them back to the society after rehabilitation, to contribute to the Gross National Product of the country. However we agreed that the second objective could be achieved only after the prisons system became economically more strong and only after the development programmes were in place. One day, a middle level, prison officer approached the Commissioner General with the idea that the coconut residue thrown away after scraping for cooking purposes from the prisons kitchens could be used to produce coconut oil to meet the prison requirement. This idea was experimented upon and proved to be successful. Thereupon, Mr. Karalliyadde ordered the necessary machinery to be bought locally from the oil mills of Negombo district and the production of coconut oil was started. He ordered by a circular letter to all the prisons to send all their coconut residue to the Welikada Jail to be used as raw material.

It was found that the oil produced was not good enough to be edible but could be used in the production of soap needed for the prison. Through this exercise, he was able to save Rs. 50,000 per month needed to purchase soap. He planned to expand this effort to the other prisons too by obtaining the throw away coconut residue from other large government institutions such as the Army, with a view to increase the prison earnings. In order to overcome the problem of the shortage of “ƒ”¹…”jumpers’ for prisoners Mr. K. revived the cloth weaving activity by the prisoners and was able to provide the clothing to put an end to embarrassment of the prisoners. Mr. K. did not stop at that. He took one step further when he had Mr. Kumar Devapura open an apparel industrial factory within the prisons with approval of the Justice Ministry. Through the earnings from this exercise a sum of Rs.500/= was credited to the savings account of every working prisoner. The important thing here was that Mr. Devapura undertook to find employment for these trained prisoners in his factories when they were released from prison.

Most prisons had a bakery to provide the needs of the prison community. The Commissioner General improved and expanded their production. He opened outlets to sell the bread made to correct weight, to the public. This step, besides serving the public to get good quality bread with correct weight swelled the income of the prisons helping Mr. K’s mission of making the prisons financially self-sufficient. The Commissioner General then went on to revive the prisons garage which was defunct and was able to have all the Prison vehicles serviced through prison labour in this garage and was able to save the enormous cost of servicing monthly the large fleet of vehicles belonging to the department. This effort was so successful that the vehicles of the Justice Ministry too were sent here for servicing to the prison garage.

To overcome the shortage of shoes and caps of the prison staff, Mr. Karalliyadde saw the Samurdhi Minister Mr. S. B. Dissanayake who gave him Rs. 2.5 million from the Samurdhi Ministry Funds to purchase machines needed to produce the shoes and caps within the prison itself. In a short time the prisoners who were trained to use these machines turned out 3000 pairs of shoes and 3000 caps for the prison staff. They further went on to produce the raincoats, batons and belts required. Mr. Karalliyadde had ambitious plans to make the prisons the supplier of all these requirements to the entire Defence, Establishment including the police and the three Armed services soon.

On another day, when he had visited the prisoners’ wards in the various wings of the Welikada Prisons, he said that he felt ashamed that the living conditions of the prisoners in the prisons that came under him was in such deplorable state. Mr. K had discussed the problem with his able Civil Engineer Kaluarachchi. He then called up the prisoners in the wing that was in the worst condition and asked them if he were to give them the necessary building material and the implements whether they would like to renovate their living area. The prisoners gladly accepted the challenge. They worked hard with little supervision and completed for themselves some pleasant living quarters in next to no time. While all this was happening, Mr. Karalliyadde started a regular dialogue with his staff down the line both with a view to communicate his strategy and also to secure their participation.

To bring in professionalism, he implemented the newly introduced Government Performance Appraisal System. Not all were happy with this however as it would expose the dead weight. He also invited me to attend some of his management meetings to expose his officers’ problems to the police and vice versa. Following these discussions, he created a Striking Force from among the newly trained lot, to carry out surprise searches etc. After seeing the newly trained officers in action, the older personnel too clamoured to have refresher training for themselves, thus turning towards professionalism on their own accord. Following this I arranged many prison officers to attend the Drug Training Courses conducted regularly by the Police Narcotics Bureau for Police officers.

This story is too good to go on for long however. In keeping with times, the wheel started turning the other way after some time. It so happened that the Minister in charge of Justice who upto this time was an Appointed M.P., decided to contest the Colombo electorate. In his campaign to build his vote bank, he was compelled to accede to pressure from his would be electors to transfer back the drug dealing prison officials who were transferred asunder by the “anti-government” Commissioner General. The Assistant Superintendent, a strong disciplinarian, who was doing a good job in the Galle prisons keeping the drug peddlers in that prison at bay, was transferred to Colombo on the request of a powerful politician from Galle, as this officer too was reported to be “ƒ”¹…”anti-government’. It was made out that if this kind of officers were allowed to continue doing what they did, the party in power would never be able to win again at an election.

The Commissioner General was not able to resist this change. In his effort to reduce corruption in the prisons, the Commissioner General reported to the Ministry that a particular senior officer should not be given an extension he had asked, to serve beyond sixty years. The officer concerned was given not one but two extensions. Mr. K thus displayed his Achilles heel and lost the confidence of his subordinates. Then, the drug cartel that was lying low became activated again. There was resistance from within, to the work on the Theraputic Community Project. The insiders reported to the local M.P. who was a powerful minister that the president of the Negombo Prisoners’ Welfare Association who was pioneering the fund raising project to put up the necessary buildings, was in fact a U.N.P. supporter. Several petitions were sent to the Justice Ministry stating so and also that questionable methods were being used to raise the funds. The ministry then started an investigation into these allegations. The Committee then became discouraged and abandoned their project. The new Performance Appraisal system implemented by the Commissioner General ran into trouble because the non performers came to be identified. Information was passed to “ƒ”¹…”Ravaya’ newspaper that there was corruption in selling the advertising rights on the Prison wall.

This shook the Commissioner General. The next blow to appear in the “ƒ”¹…”Ravaya’ was that he was flirting with the new women Prison Officers, on his circuits. This broke the back of the man who was generally a shy individual. He said “D.I.G., I can’t take any more. I can’t go home. I will have to commit suicide!” I managed to console him. I told him this was all part of the game. I also told him that these were the built-in weapon systems in the armoury of the corrupt overall system, beginning to fire their volleys, to knock down and break honest and dedicated officers. The next time, a bolt from the blues struck me. I decided to throw in the towel when someone several places my junior was promoted to the big post over the heads of several of us. The Commissioner General however hung on with difficulty. The final blow came when he made the fatal mistake; i.e when he hesitated to release prison vehicles to the Minister’s election campaign, and out he went from his post. And that was the end of the carnival!

About the writer

 Gamini Gunawardane, Graduated from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in 1962 and, took a MPA degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, U.S.A. in 1989. He spent another year at the Centre for Criminal Justice of the Harvard University on a Fulbright Research Fellowship researching on policing and produced a research thesis titled. A SEARCH FOR A NEW CONCEPT OF POLICING, FOR SRI LANKA, in 1990. He has addressed several audiences in different parts of U.S.A. on policing problems in Sri Lanka and has met several American experts on policing. He was engaged on further research on policing, in India, at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and produced a research thesis titled: THE PROBLEM OF THE POLICE DEPARTMENT BEING AN INSTRUMENT OF THE GOVERNMENT, in 1992. He had visited Police establishments in New York  and several other States in the US  and also in Singapore and Hong Kong. He also attended the “ƒ”¹…”Overseas’ Command Course’ at Police Staff College, Bram’s Hill, UK. Having served Police Department  for 35 years he retired in Nov. 1998 prematurely, as Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (Crimes, Criminal intelligence and Organized Crime).

One Response to “Of Prisons and Police”

  1. LankaLover Says:

    What a story.. I was glued to the writing.. This story shows how much a change can be made in the hands of great
    dedicated and capable people, even under the most difficult circumstances.

    It is a grave shame that the whole country has to give into few corrupt politicians to ruin the whole country.

    Being ordinary citizens of this country, we bow to you Mr. Gamini Gunawardane and Mr. W. E. Karalliyadde.

    We need people like you everywhere to bring this country out from the grave disarray we are in. Few dedicated people can make a huge difference in this world.

    Hope you two would enjoy a peaceful retirement in the company of grand-kids and nature. May you have a long and happy life.

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