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Protecting Prisoners from Coronavirus

Image courtesy LMD

There have been no deaths due to Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Sri Lanka. The number of confirmed cases per day went down the last two days (20th and 21st March)[1]. But tragically, yesterday, 21st March evening, two prisoners in state custody at the Anuradhapura prison were reported to have been killed and several more wounded and hospitalized due to shooting, in tensions linked to COVID-19. Some media reported that the shooting was in the context of protests by prisoners demanding to be released in fear of COVID-19[2] while other reports had quoted the police as claiming the protest was concerning new restrictions on visitors and bringing food from outside[3]. Most reports highlighted prisoners were shot as they were trying to escape.

Anxiety about COVID-19 had led to riots in almost 50 prisons throughout Italy earlier this month, with about 13 deaths among detainees and 59 injured guards[4]. Riots in a prison in India yesterday had led to the death of an inmate and injuries to at least 28 inmates, prison staff and police[5].

The killing of prisoners has been part of Sri Lanka’s history – with most victims being ethnic minority Tamils, such as during 1983 in Colombo, 2000 in Bindunuwewa and 2012 in Vavuniya. Sinhalese and Muslims were victims of the most recent prison massacre in Colombo’s Welikada prison in 2012.

As we fight COVID-19, we must take quick steps to prevent such situations, acknowledging that prisoners are amongst the most vulnerable, have limited contacts with anxious families and the outside world and have less access to reliable information. They may panic and take desperate measures to protect and remove themselves from real or perceived harm from COVID-19 and may even resort to irrational, illegal or violent behaviour. Anxious and overworked prison staff and authorities may be hard-pressed to control such behaviour.

Earlier, on 15th March, a media report had quoted the Superintendent of the Prison in Anuradhapura as saying close to 150 out of 215 prison staff had refrained from reporting to duty, due to suspicion an inmate admitted had COVID-19[6]. The inmate had been admitted to the prison for not paying a fine of Rs. 25,000 for an offence related to a motor vehicle.  On 21st March, there was another media report about unrest in the Kegalle prison amongst inmates and prison staff, due to fears that an inmate who had returned from Italy may have COVID-19[7].

Reducing the number of convicted prisoners

It is in this context that on 16th March, the Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) appealed to the President, Minister in charge of Prisons and Commissioner General of Prisons, to take measures to avoid the spread of the virus in prisons[8]. They had suggested some practical measures, such as early release and home leave as provided for in the Prison Ordinance.

Prison Department statistics indicate these measures have worked relatively well. For the five years of 2014 and 2018, out of 987 prisoners released on “license scheme”, only 6 had licenses revoked for violating conditions and only 3 had been taken into custody again (less than 1%). In the same five years, out of 2,724 prisoners that had been sent on home leave, only 81 (less than 3%) had violated the law.

CPRP had also requested the President to use constitutional powers and grant pardon to some prisoners, such as those above 70 years, those with serious sicknesses, those who had received minor punishments and those who have been unable to pay small fines.

According to Prison Department statistics, nearly 2/3 of those admitted as convicted persons to prisons in 2018 (64.8% / 16,111 of 24.852) was due to defaulting on fines.

Reducing the number of remand prisoners

Prison Department statistics also indicate that more than 81% of those admitted to prisons in 2018 and 2017 are unconvicted (remand) prisoners. This percentage has been 75-80% throughout 2010-2016. Some are remanded due to their and their family’s inability to make deposits for bail while others could be remanded due to police and magistrates choosing to remand as the norm and bail as the exception.

Long years awaiting trials to begin and long years for completion of trials is another reason for overcrowded prisons in Sri Lanka. Prison department statistics indicate that as of 31st December 2018, 5% of prisoners had spent more than 2 years in prison as remand prisoners, with 162 spending more than 5 years. In 2015, a Tamil mother, detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was acquitted by courts as not guilty, after spending 15 years in prison and there have been other PTA detainees who were acquitted as not guilty after many years in prison[9]. There have been persons in detention for as long as 18-19 years under the PTA without having their cases concluded and in some cases, it has taken up to 15 years to even file charges[10].


Earlier this month, I came to know two foreign nationals, with serious health complications, who were remanded on 28th February for immigration offences. Their case was heard on 13th March, on which date they had indicated willingness to plead guilty, for which the punishment could be a fine. The next date was fixed for 19th March, but due to restricted court work, they have not been able to plead guilty to-date and compelled to remain in prison.

In a slightly different context, several Pakistanis who had sought asylum to Canada have been detained at the overcrowded Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in Mirihana for nearly a year. They had their biometric tests scheduled in early January at the Canadian High Commission in Colombo, but have not been taken there to-date by Immigration officials. If these were done on time, they probably would have left for Canada by now, instead of languishing in detention in terrible conditions, fearful of COVID-19 and increasing the burden on overburdened authorities.

Longstanding problems and emergency measures

In Sri Lanka and the world, prisons health care system is not as good as healthcare outside the prison, and poor nutrition and unhygienic conditions are common. Overcrowding is a key problem. According to the “Lankadeepa” report of 21st March cited above, Kegalle prison has about 900 persons, despite being meant for about 350. Inmates of Welikada prison are reported to have told the President last month that the prison hosts three times the capacity it can host[11].

Right now, with the threat of COVID-19, there is a desperate urgency to expedite the use of existing legal measures in the Prison Ordinance and the Constitution, such as presidential pardons, home leave and early releases on “license schemes”. To control COVID-10, Iran has released about 85,000 prisoners, Bahrain has pardoned 901 prisoners with a further 585 expected to be released and given non-custodial sentences and Italy had announced plans to release and place under house arrest prisoners with less than 18 months on their sentence[12]. The Mayor of New York in the United States of America (USA) has announced plans to release “most vulnerable” prisoners[13].

Making bail accessible to more suspects and accused by relaxing bail conditions, expediting cases, particularly in cases where suspects are likely to be released or plead guilty and may get non-custodial sentences could help reduce the number of remand prisoners. In Ohio in the USA, plans were made to hold mass plea bargain hearings, prioritizing cases of those in prison charged with non-violent and low-level offences[14].

Measures to improve health facilities in prisons, including the provision of essentials like sanitary pads, soap etc., which were largely being delivered by visitors, is also crucial. Even a significant amount of food has been delivered by visitors and sudden stoppage of visits is likely to have caused food shortages and problems in nutrition.

Visits by family members and others are a lifeline for prisoners, and if physical visits are not possible, alternative ways for prisoners to communicate with families could be devised. Italy, despite the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis, has come up with alternative ways for prisoners to communicate with families[15].

Today, rights groups, lawyers and religious leaders, who have played important roles in monitoring, advocating and defending prisoners’ rights and wellbeing, are also constrained by curfew and social distancing. Even the independent oversight body, the Human Rights Commission, appears to be constrained by COVID-19, though they have been closely following and responding to appeals and complaints.

Prisoners, unlike many others, are unable to practice COVID-19 preventive measures like self-isolation, social distancing and handwashing with soap on their own, unless facilities are provided by authorities. In Sri Lanka, the prison population is likely to be more than a hundred thousand. With COVID-19, their lives and wellbeing, as well as those of prison staff, are at stake and they are entitled to and deserve maximum attention and support.



[1] Situation report at 10am on 22nd March 2020 by Epidemiology Unit Ministry of Health & Indigenous Medical Services, indicates 6 confirmed cases on 21st and 22nd March, and compared to 8, 10, 13, 11 and 13 confirmed cases respectively on previous five days.





[6] “Lankadeepa” reports of 15th March (Sinhalese)

[7]  “Lankadeepa” report of 21st March (Sinhalese)









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