‘Depriving someone of their dignity will not create civic-minded citizens’: In conversation with Ambika Satkunanathan

Following the Mahara Prison riots in late November 2020, the ever-existent call for the dire need of prison reforms islandwide was amplified more than ever before. Adding to the conversation were prisoners rights associations and activists who urged the authorities to take heed of the gross human rights violations that have been taking place day in and day out within the aggregate of the Sri Lankan prison systems. 

“The public also has a perception that only evil, awful people go into prisons and they come out as people who can be reintegrated into society as “good citizens”. That is a myth”    Human rights lawyer, advocate, and former Human Rights Commissioner of Sri Lanka (2015-2020) Ambika Satkunanathan

The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to human rights lawyer, advocate, and former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (2015-2020) Ambika Satkunanathan in this regard. Satkunanathan led the first-ever national study of prisons in Sri Lanka at the commission, closely working with the island’s prisons for an extensive period of time, and was the keynote speaker in the virtual Facebook event hosted last week by the international libertarian non-profit organisation “Students for Liberty”.

You are on record to have conducted the first-ever national study on prisons in Sri Lanka. Tell us a little bit about your study.  


This is the only study in Sri Lanka we have on prisons with empirical data. It’s a 856-page volume and it gives insight into the treatment and conditions of prisoners with an analysis of related laws, the gaps and shortcomings, and provides recommendations both for legal reform and practical strategies. It covers every issue in relation to prisons.
The research was done at 20 prisons in Sri Lanka. We would visit them and would spend an average of five days or even more at each prison. We would conduct inspections of the prisons go over every nook and cranny within those prisons from every ward to every cell to the kitchen. We also administered nearly 3,000 questionnaires and conducted nearly 350 interviews with prisoners and roughly 102 interviews with prison officials. We additionally interviewed the Attorney General, Minister of Justice, Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, officers of the Community Corrections Department, and relevant officers from the Ministry of Health at the time. 

It was both a quantitative and qualitative study. The report based on the study was published in December 2020 and is framed within national as well as international standards, i.e. it refers to the globally accepted Mandela Rules as well as the Constitution of Sri Lanka, in particular the fundamental rights chapter of our Constitution. We also used the Prisons Ordinance and other relevant local laws. The report is accessible to the public and it is an immense resource which everyone should utilise. 


What would you say are the key findings of this study?

The fundamental finding is that our penal system is not fit for this purpose. The public also has a perception that only evil, awful people go into prisons and they come out as people who can be reintegrated into society as “good citizens”. That is a myth, as we have observed.
Most people who end up in prison are those who are already socially marginalised and discriminated against. What they experience in prison doesn’t really help make their situation or community security better. It often leads these persons deeper into a cycle of poverty, violence and criminal activity. They are criminalised in prison and by the time they are released, their lives have broken down so much that it is difficult for them to heal and rebuild. 

Also, most people who are in prison shouldn’t really be in prison. The belief that more prisons are needed to accommodate criminals to make society safer is a dangerous myth. For instance, a large number of persons in our prisons are those who were unable to pay fines. We came across people who were unable to pay a fine as little as Rs. 3,000 and were imprisoned due to that. What would happen to that person’s life and family when he is imprisoned? Social stigma aggravates this situation.
Sri Lanka has a very progressive law called the Community-Based Corrections Act and it says that anyone convicted for an offense for less than two years of imprisonment, need not be imprisoned and instead can be sent for community corrections, which is far less costly for the government. This is a better option as the government spends about Rs. 300,000 per prisoner on average annually. Furthermore, this method would enable a person to remain within the community and their family. That law, regrettably, is not used due to little awareness and reluctance among judicial officers and lawyers. Some officials confessed to us that it is far easier administratively to imprison someone than keep their files open for months if they are sent for community corrections. 

We need to address the inequality, marginalisation, and discrimination in our society at the community level to make sure fewer people end up in prison. 


Do you think the tagline “Prisoners are Humans too” that lies underneath the mural at Welikada Prison is ironic? Please do elaborate on the conditions of prisons islandwide.


What I find ironic and slightly hypocritical are people in society who say that prisoners are not being treated right, but at the same time say that we need more prisons to be built. I find it hypocritical that people whose instinctive reaction to anything is “let’s arrest and imprison” without bothering to learn about the root causes of crime, then speak of prisoners’ rights. 
Let’s not constantly blame only the Department of Prisons. We as a society must take responsibility for the state of our prisons and plight of prisoners. Even in society, there isn’t any social discourse on the rights of prisoners. Society wakes up only when a violent incident such as the Mahara riots happen. It is only then that our society remembers that prisoners exist. Each successive government, regardless of who was in power, did not pay adequate attention to our penal system and didn’t do enough to address the root causes of crime. Instead of addressing the pipeline to prison, they built more prisons. 

For example, the prisons do not have a budgetary allocation for the provision of sanitary napkins to female prisoners and they are forced to rely on family members to provide it, but not everyone has families. Many foreign prisoners for example, both men and women, resort to performing menial tasks for other prisoners to obtain essential commodities such as soap or toothpaste. We found that the Department of Prisons takes it upon themselves to request donations to meet the needs of prisoners, as it is not within their budget. 

Successive governments have neglected their responsibility and should be held accountable, but it does not stop there. We as a society should take more responsibility, which we clearly do not. We only resort to a blame game. At the societal level, we have to address inequality and discrimination so that people are not pushed or forced into precarious and exploitative activities to survive. 


The fact that your study is the first-ever national research conducted on prisons in the island is indeed alarming. Why do you think there is so little research in this regard?

Firstly, I believe that it is because prisons and prisoners are not really something the general public pays attention to. 

Second is the issue of access, which is needed for conducting credible research. The Human Rights Commission, however, has the authority to enter all premises of detention at all times without prior notification, through which it was able to conduct the study. 


Conversation around the drastic need for prison reforms was aggravated following the Mahara Prison riots in November 2020. Do you see the promised prison reforms happening anytime soon? 


Yes and no. In the Department of Prisons, we have come across progressive and empathetic officials who understand that the problem is not just with the penal system but with the entire criminal justice system. The current Commissioner General of Prisons, Thushara Upuldeniya is one of them.  

However, reforms are not just about law. I heard that the Government is planning to commute death row sentences to life, which is a good thing. Evidence has shown that the death penalty has no deterrent effect on crime. Furthermore, the death penalty is a cruel and inhumane punishment, which erodes our own humanity and hence should be abolished. This move by the Government is positive. The Government has also said it is going to restart the four-year evaluation process, whereby each prisoner will be evaluated and could become eligible for early release depending on progress in rehabilitation. This is also a step in the right direction, but the evaluation process as it exists is not very robust and there are shortcomings that need to be addressed, which I hope the Government will do. 

What is disappointing is that the Government has stated that those on death row for drug offenses will not be commuted. They need to be aware that having the death penalty does not curb drug crime as shown by evidence from other countries.
The Mandela Rules say that the deprivation of liberty is the punishment, i.e. what it means is that imprisonment itself is the punishment. However, Sri Lankans have this twisted belief that further suffering has to be inflicted upon the imprisoned. If a prisoner was to have a bed in prison in this country, Sri Lankans would be outraged and would question why the government is allocating funds for the comfort of such awful people. 

Depriving someone of their dignity will not create civic-minded citizens. In order for us to really address the problem, we must look at the root causes and interrogate how we look at crime and punishment. We must look at social attitudes, and a shift in mindset is required.