The need for prison reforms has been discussed for years in Sri Lanka with very little progress. The COVID19 pandemic has renewed attention to the issue in an urgent manner. Systemic issues within prisons in Sri Lanka expose inmates and staff to heightened risks due to both the contagiousness of the virus as well as the restrictions put in place to contain its spread within the country.
Agitation due to this vulnerability and the resulting riots at the Anuradhapura prison resulted in two deaths in March 2020. Advocacy on the issue has resulted in the President appointing a committee to examine relevant issues and some small steps have been taken as of now. Most recently, a Presidential Task Force was appointed with a mandate, among other functions, to “investigate and prevent any illegal and antisocial activities in and around prisons”. Notably, the Presidential Task Force comprises of present and former military, intelligence and law and order officials with no representation of officials having expertise and experiencehaving worked in prisons or related issues. These recent developments highlights the importance of qualitative and quantitative research on prison conditions as well as the need to continue advocacy towards advancing the prisoners’ rights by the civil society.
Earlier in 2019, there was some discussion on prison reforms in the context of re-implementing the death penalty. While imposing the death penalty violates constitutionally recognised fundamental rights, the effective functioning of criminal justice and punishment is nevertheless crucial to uphold constitutional and human rights standards. Abolishing the death penalty will also create greater dependence on custodial sentences and therefore examining the status of prisons in Sri Lanka and the relevant framework is greatly needed. The importance of this exercise has become even more important amidst the COVID19 outbreak.
This Report by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) assesses the domestic legal, regulatory and administrative framework relevant to imprisonment as criminal punishment. The Report further discusses the goals and conditions of imprisonment and the rights of prisoners in light of international legal obligations, constitutional provisions and comparative standards. Finally, it provides recommendations for policy makers. The Report, however, is not an exhaustive study on the conditions of prisons in Sri Lanka. CPA hopes that this Report will raise awareness on key legal and policy issues that require urgent attention and facilitate taking necessary action related to the state of prisons, which require urgent attention.