Monthly ‘visiting hours’ at the female ward of Sri Lanka’s notorious Welikada Prison are as traumatic for the inmates as they are for their family and friends. A tiny room, measuring 10 feet by seven feet, is divided in half by a mesh counter. On one side, mothers, fathers, children and relatives jostle for standing room. On the other the inmates, in white prison clothes, shout to be heard over the din.
This monthly ordeal is emblematic of the prison system itself – chaotic, overcrowded and inhumane.
"We are treated as far less than human," one of the female prisoners, speaking under strict condition of anonymity, told IPS.
"About 150 of us sleep in a cell designed for 75 people," she added. "An open drain infested with rats runs the perimeter of the room. Recently, one of the inmates was bitten and had to be rushed to the hospital for an anti-rabies shot."
Over the past several weeks the plight of prisoners in Welikada, Sri Lanka’s largest incarceration facility, has resurfaced in state and independent media, with reports of overcrowding nudging their way back onto newspapers.
Secretary to the ministry of rehabilitation and prison reforms, A. Dissanayake, told the leading English language ‘Daily Mirror’, last week, Welikada currently houses 4,500 inmates in a facility intended for 2,000, admitting to 220 percent overcrowding.
According to Cristina Albertin, a representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in the New Delhi-based regional office for South Asia, Sri Lanka has the second most overcrowded prison system in the region after Bangladesh, which has an occupancy level of 302.4 percent.
"Most Sri Lankan prisons were built over a 100 years ago by the British, at a time when the country’s population was about three million," Albertin told IPS.
"Now, the ministry says that though the "institutional capacity is 11,000 prisoners, the current total prison population is over 30,933," Albertin said.
"More than 50 percent of these are remand prisoners and 50 percent are incarcerated due to non- payment of fines," Albertin said, adding that petty criminals and sexual offenders are incarcerated with perpetrators of heinous crimes.
"Everyone receives the same abuse," the female prisoner told IPS, "whether we have murdered someone or simply failed to pay back a loan."
She described the female ward of the Welikada prison as "hell" – including maggots in the food, a complete absence of beds, mats or pillows and no fans despite the 33 degrees Celsius heat.
"There are 650 of us in the female ward though it was built for 150 people," she added, suggesting that, in the women’s ward in particular, actual numbers outstrip the conservatively estimated occupancy rates of 200 percent.
"We eat, bathe, sleep, wake up and begin all over again," she told IPS. "There are no attempts at rehabilitation. Women here just waste away."
What few of the inmates know is that the Sri Lankan prison system is actually defined as "correctional," indicating that, officially, reintegration into society is a priority.
"Individuals are sent to prison for a specific purpose – to correct themselves," Albertin told IPS. "It is, therefore, important to assess whether the prevailing prison conditions are conducive to such a task, or whether they are designed to project the idea that prisoners are a condemned lot, not deserving of respect or attention."
In fact, there is a disregard for prisoners’ human rights that extends beyond the walls of the jails themselves.
Tahini De Andrado, a senior member of Interact District 3220, the largest local coalition of Sri Lankan schools under Rotary International, is confronting these biases at Welikada.
"Though we weren’t allowed access to the entire prison, we saw enough to know the situation was bad," De Andrado told IPS.
Currently 75 female inmates are forced to share two bathrooms. Of the ten bathrooms available for the prisoners, most are in shocking states of disrepair.
"What’s worse is that women are locked into their cells at 5.30 every evening, and not let out to use the bathroom until five o’clock the following morning," De Andrado told IPS.
"Women sleep with buckets beside them, which they use as toilets during the night. This is not a complicated issue – I think it’s a simple matter of looking at sanitation as a basic human right," she added.
Rotary’s District 3220 is currently embarked on a project to build 10 new bathrooms for the women, at a cost of 2,000,000 Sri Lankan rupees (18,263 US dollars).
Securing funding for the project has not been easy.
"Many large corporations do not consider this a community service project at all," De Andrado told IPS. "Even managing directors of leading local companies told us this was a waste of time and money on ‘people who can help themselves.’"
She added that a partner organisation that had attempted a similar prison sanitation project in 2010 had failed to secure any funding from the corporations.
"From my experience, if you approach complete strangers on the subject of prisoners’ rights and appeal to their human instincts you will find they don’t have any," De Andrado said.
"Perhaps some of these women have done wrong – but they don’t deserve to be treated like cattle once they’re inside," she concluded.
According to Albertin, the government is slated to review the existing Prison Ordinance of 1867, and bring fresh legislation to parliament this year.
"There is both scope and need for expanding prison-based intervention to address issues of overcrowding, services for female prisoners and awareness of the problem of vulnerable groups like women in prisons," Albertin told IPS.
"The national policies and rules in prisons need to be in closer conformity with the U.N. rules for the treatment of prisoners in terms of hygiene, food, access to services like health and information and complaint mechanisms," she added.
Going by history, the women of Welikada have little to hope for.