Mahara prison riot: How pills meant for mental patients triggered violence
Posted on December 2nd, 2020

By Shamindra Ferdinando Courtesy The Island

* Over 2,400 inmates on their own within complex

* Death toll reachers 11, could rise further

* Clashes among prisoners injure 80

* Doctor under investigation

* Rioters popped more than 21,000 pills

A high-level investigation into the Mahara Prison riot took an unexpected turn yesterday (1) following the revelation that the prison dispensary had stored over 21,000 tablets prescribed for mental disorders and sleeping pills.

Police spokesperson DIG Ajith Rohana told a joint media briefing called by the Police Headquarters and the Prisons Department, in Colombo, that they were quite surprised that such a large stock of tablets was maintained. He said it had to be found out who had ordered the stock, how inmates got addicted to such substances, and whether a doctor attached to the Mahara Prison hospital had instigated prisoners to demand PCR tests.

DIG Rohana said that on the directions of the IGP C.D. Wickremaratne as per the instructions received from Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, a 12 -member team from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was inquiring into the riot.

DIG Rohana said those who had been addicted to heroin and cocaine were believed to have used tablets prescribed to mental patients.

Prisons Commissioner Chandana Ekanayake (Administration) said that those who popped the tablets had turned on each other. Quoting officers who had been at the scene last Sunday (29) Ekanayake said they had never witnessed such scenes of violent behaviour among prisoners before.

Responding to a media query, Ekanayake emphasised that the Mahara Prison riot had erupted suddenly whereas they received intelligence warning of possible trouble at some other prisons.

National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa told Parliament, on Monday, that the prison riot was part of a sinister plan to bring President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government into disrepute.

The media was told that at the time of the riot there had been 2,782 inmates at the Mahara Prisons complex. 585 were convicts and others suspects, DIG Rohana said, alleging that they had initiated Sunday’s violence. What initially started as common demand for all of them to be subjected to RT-PCR tests quickly had led to a riot, the DIG said.

DIG Rohana, who is also the head of the Police Legal Division, said that a section of those rioters had made repeated attempts to escape. Having failed, they had set fire to buildings within the complex. Among those destroyed were the Registry and the offices of top officials in charge of the prison.

The media was told one more inmate admitted to the Ragama Teaching Hospital had succumbed to his injuries yesterday. With that the total number of dead increased to nine, while 105 continued to receive treatment.
Besides, two Prison officers taken hostage and badly assaulted by the rioters were receiving treatment at the same hospital. Several hours after the conclusion of the media briefing Police headquarters said that two more persons had succumbed to their injuries.

At the beginning of the briefing Ekanayake said that of over 2,700 prisoners, approximately 1,600 had gone on the rampage. Trouble erupted while they were being served food in line with health guidelines. They broke out from where they were held and swiftly gathered close to the main gate. They demanded immediate PCR tests on them.”

Ekanayake said 187 inmates had tested positive by then.

The rioters had attacked the main gate, Ekanayake said. Officers opened fire having failed to bring the situation under control by shooting rubber bullets.” He said the situation had taken a turn for the worse after inmates took tablets meant for mental patients.

DIG Rohana said that of the 106 who had received injuries, 80 suffered as a result of violence among the prison community. Of the injured, only 26 were believed to have received gunshot injuries, DIG Rohana said.

Commissioner Ekanayake alleged that both the dead and the wounded were those in custody on narcotic charges.

Seventy eight coronavirus positive inmates had since been moved to a quarantine facility at Adalachchenai in the Akkaraipattu police area, DIG Rohana said.

DIG Rohana said those who had been granted bail couldn’t be immediately released as the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) had issued specific instructions on subjecting inmates to two weeks quarantine before release.

DIG Rohana said that following the removal of the injured and the dead to the Ragama hospital, those granted bail and infected inmates had been moved to a special section within the Welikada Prison complex and about 2,400 remained in the Mahara Prison.

Rohana said that among them were a large number of inmates who hadn’t been involved in violence. Acknowledging that the prisons complex wasn’t yet under the control of the jailers, the DIG said that the Police, including the Special Task Force (STF) and the Prison security were making plans to carry out an operation to restore normalcy. He said they would implement a special plan while the police backed by the STF maintained its presence outside the prison.

The police deployment consisted of 400 police and 200 STF personnel.

Both Police and Prisons officers couldn’t confirm whether at least some inmates had managed to escape though they believed such attempts were thwarted.

DIG Rohana said that the rioting inmates had been prevented from seizing the armoury.

The Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Defence, too, discussed the availability of three varieties of pills totalling 21,000 meant for mental patients at the Prison. Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. Gunaratne briefed the CC on the matter and steps taken by authorities to bring the situation under control.

DIG. Rohana told the media that he had requested Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC, to leave him out of a special committee headed by retired HC judge Kusala Sarojini Weerawardena tasked with inquiring into the riot due to conflict of interests as his duties and responsibilities as the Police Spokesperson clashed with the probe undertaken by the committee.

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