Took up challenge and controlled situation: Lohan Ratwatte

  • Reforms to reduce overcrowding
  • Life sentence to be reduced to 20 years
  • No preferential treatment for inmates

By Sarah Hannan

State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation Lohan Ratwatte’s appointment has raised some eyebrows. Questions have been raised on whether he is the most suited person to handle the situation at hand, in terms of controlling the unrest within prisons and keeping the fast-spreading Covid-19 cluster within prisons under control.

This week, Ratwatte was on The Sunday Morning Hot Seat to clear the air on such concerns, the Government’s plan on reforming the prison system, and the most speculated topic of the possibility of releasing politicians that are on death row under the early release/presidential pardon process based on good behaviour.

Following are the excerpts of the interview:

You were appointed the new State Minister for Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation amid the tense situation that unfolded at the Mahara Prison. What are your thoughts on being assigned this portfolio?

I like challenges, and I took up the challenge in bringing the situation under control within a span of just three days.

There have been some questions by certain quarters on whether you are the best to hold the portfolio. How do you respond to such remarks?

People might have doubts, but it is not for me to say how I am the best pick for this job. It is for the public to decide whether I am carrying out my duties properly. If they have a doubt, they can always ask questions from me and clear it up.

What do you consider priority areas when looking at the country’s prisons system and prisoner rehabilitation?

The foremost priority is reducing the congestion in the prisons, as it has been overcrowded for years. The capacity of the entire prison network is 11,000 prisoners, whereas today, we have 25,000 prisoners. Within the last three months, we managed to bring down the number from 32,000 to 25,000, and we are also looking at reducing the number by another 8,000 prisoners who are serving sentences for minor offences; inmates who have not been able to pay their bail. We will pay their bail and make arrangements to release them. This will also be followed up by the rehabilitation of drug addicts and vocational training so they could be integrated back into society.

What process would you follow when releasing these prisoners?

We are looking at expediting the PCR testing for inmates that qualify for release. If they test positive for Covid-19, we will send them to a Covid-19 treatment centre. If they test negative, we will inform the area Police and PHI (Public Health Inspector) and send them home. This process is currently underway.

How confident are you that the existing system could be changed, given the continuous overcrowding in prisons over several decades?

What I explained to you before is the short-term plan to reduce overcrowding. The long-term plan involves shifting the prison complex (remand and magazine) that is presently at Welikada in a 44-acre land expanse, to a 250-acre property that is earmarked in Horana, where a new prison complex is to be constructed.

The property that houses the Welikada Prison Complex is situated in an area that is considered to be prime real estate property, which the Government is looking to repurpose for commercial property. So, the facility will be transferred to Horana, which includes facilities such as a maximum-security prison, remand prison, a rehabilitation centre, and vocational training centre.

It has been reported that most of the space in prisons is occupied by minor and repeat offenders. How will you address this issue?

There is a process where prisoners that serve long-term sentences have their behaviour evaluated every four years. Based on their progress reports and good behaviour, the Department of Prisons can make a request to the Attorney General (AG) to reduce their prison sentences.

For instance, the death penalty will be reduced to a life sentence; once it is reduced to a life sentence, the inmates’ behaviour will be once again reviewed every four years and the life sentence will be reduced to 20 years’ jailtime. Based on their good behaviour, we are then able to release these inmates once they complete the 20 years in prison.

We are also aware that there are prisoners who have been sentenced under the category of dealing or trafficking narcotics, however in reality, they have been drug users and have been caught for possession. A clear categorisation of drug users and dealers is to be established, so that if it is a drug user that is penalised, they will be able to obtain police bail and would be sent for rehabilitation instead of being imprisoned.

These conditions are to be drafted into a cabinet paper and would be presented for approval in the coming weeks.

Despite overcrowding in prison infrastructure, sanitary facilities have not increased. Do you feel the funds allocated to your Ministry could address this issue? If not, what alternative will you look at?

The State Ministry has been given sufficient allocations from the 2021 Budget to address these issues and to develop the infrastructure in the prison system. In the meantime, we are also looking at implementing some corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects with the assistance of interested corporations, which will assist in their rehabilitation process, vocational training, and character building.

As for the Mahara Prison clashes, how will you address the concerns of the families of the inmates?

 At present, we are conducting a full investigation into the incident that took place in the Mahara Prison on 29 November. The inmates are alleged to have torched the documentation files of all prisoners that were held in Mahara and are said to have caused damage to the buildings and inventory.

We understand that the families are concerned about the wellbeing of their family members that are serving time, and given the present pandemic, we have to limit the visits of the families at several prisons.

The State Ministry and the Department of Prisons are working closely with Sri Lanka Telecom to install phones at prison complexes, which will allow the families to talk to the inmates. A time frame of 20 minutes is to be allocated. The calling will take place according to a collect call method, where the inmates’ family will have to send calling credit and set a time for the call through the prison officials.

In addition to that, we are also looking at implementing video conferencing facilities at every prison; so on the date of the hearing, the inmate can virtually participate in the hearing, and if they are to be released, they can pay the bail amount and go home.

Remand prisoners have to appear in courts fortnightly, and since the courts are also going to conduct virtual hearings going forward, in order to minimise risks of the virus spread and for the inmates’ own safety, once the necessary video conferring facilities are installed, the hearings can take place remotely.

Prison clashes and the death of prisoners are bad for the country’s human rights situation. How will this be addressed?

We are maintaining transparency on the investigations being carried out in relation to such incidents at present, and should the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka or any other entity need to visit the prisons to see the situation for themselves, we are willing to allow them to do so. We are open to suggestions from the rights groups, and if they recommend adjusting or changing anything, we are more than willing to look at adopting such recommendations.

What about the allegation that the Government is trying to cover up evidence of what happened during the clash by cremating the bodies of the dead inmates? How would you respond to this allegation?

That is a wrongful assumption. The records of all these prisoners were burnt and we are at present taking statements from inmates to identify the inmates that survived. As for the deaths that took place, we have given the fingerprints to the Police, so that they can run it and assist us in identifying the dead inmates.

At the moment, even the Department of Prisons is faced with the challenge of recognising the inmates. I cannot irresponsibly make statements to offer a false sense of security to the families that are concerned either.

Does that mean the Department of Prisons will look at digitising the inmate records?

Absolutely, we shall look into that as well.

With regard to the Covid-19 situations in prisons, the inmates are at the State’s mercy and their chance of surviving the pandemic is up to the Government. To that end, what will you do to address the Covid-19 situation in the prisons?

We have prioritised running the necessary tests on the inmates that qualify to be released early. We are conducting daily PCR test sample collections in batches and have been provided added assistance by the Sri Lanka Army as well, to expedite the activity.

 You have been quoted in some media reports that even inmates on death row should be pardoned over good behaviour? Can you clarify this statement?

That is correct. As I explained to you previously, the life sentences will be reduced to 20-year sentences, and based on the outcome of their behaviour evaluations, they would be eligible for presidential pardon. In which case, we will request the Ministry of Justice to write to the President, who will decide on whether they are to be given presidential pardon.

It is believed that the statement was aimed at ensuring the future release of former MP Duminda Silva and current MP Premalal Jayasekera, who are both on death row. How do you respond?

 We will give no priority for them, as their cases too will be processed in the aforementioned manner.