If we are good at one thing as a nation, it is the duplication of work. If some job requires two persons, we hire ten or more for that. The more, we seem to believe, the merrier, to hell with efficiency and public funds. Time was when we had about 15 workers to a bus in the state owned Ceylon Transport Board (CTB). The situation must be more or less the same today as well. In our garden city of Colombo, we oftentimes have a gang of ten to fifteen CMC labourers watching two or three others work on something that usually requires one person. Ironically, where they idle, one could see massive billboards that boast: Ratepayers rupees at work! The Railway Department must be having a worker per sleeper.
Political institutions are no better. Seven Provincial Councils (PCs) have been set up at colossal cost to the public purse to duplicate administration. There are, inter alia, eight education ministries to run about 10,000 schools and eight health ministries to manage about 500 hospitals. But, there has been no discernible improvement in the public sector. Nay, it deteriorates day by day. The PCs are left with no funds after their maintenance costs are met. Who cares? This is a country like no other, isn t it? We have over 4,000 sitting people s representatives doing sweet nothing in a countless number of local government bodies, the PCs and Parliament.
Perhaps, it is in keeping with this national ethos that the Prisons Department has come out with a new scheme to cleanse the state pens which are stinking to high heavens. As if the whole caboodle of prison officers were not enough, it is going to have special police units inside prisons to curb the high incidence of malpractices reported from those facilities. We are intrigued. That, we thought, was one of the duties of the prisons staff maintained with public funds.
Prisons have over the years become hellholes where the writ of the state has apparently ceased to run. They have become dark empires being run according to whims and fancies of an officers Mafia collaborating with the scum of the earth. Money can buy anything in the secret world hidden behind high security walls from narcotics to freedom for inmates to visit their families at night. There is a thriving narcotics business in those places. Drugs don t materialise in prisons like holy ash, do they? They have to be brought in with inside help. Ex-convicts vouch for the fact that organised gangs openly packet drugs in their cells and ply trade at night with the full knowledge of prisons officers who turn a blind eye to their operations either because of bribery or for fear of reprisals. An upright chief jailer, Upali Tennakoon, who had the pluck to stand up to the corrupt, was shot dead inside a bus on his way back home, a few years ago. That is the fate of officers who dare carry out their duties and functions.
The government makes a show of its Mathata Thitha programme aimed at ridding the country of the scourge of narcotics. It is indeed a noble project which deserves public support. But, the government has not yet been able to deal with the problem at least in well fortified prisons cut off from the rest of the world! In a way, the question is whether one should be surprised by its failure at all. For, drug dealers have made a mockery of the Mathata Thitha programme by raiding media institutions together with ruling party politicians and assaulting journalists. The government does nothing and the President looks the other way. Behind every drug baron or a crime czar there is a powerful politician. How can the kibosh be put on drugs?
Occasional surprise raids conducted on prisons result in the detection of mobile phones etc. Moneyed convicts receive preferential treatment and lead a near normal life behind bars. A few years ago a luxury cell was found in a Colombo prison, where a wealthy businessman had been kept. All this boils down to one thing rampant corruption in the Prisons Department.
Commissioner General of Prisons Maj. Gen (Retd) Wajira Wijegunawardena, apparently disillusioned with the present system, may have thought of tackling illegal and corrupt activities in prisons with the help of the police. But, his plan amounts to a damning indictment of the jailers et al tasked with maintaining law and order in prisons. Why should the public continue to pay them, if they are not capable of doing their job?
There is no guarantee that the police will be less corrupt than their prisons counterparts. They, like water that takes the shape of the vessel it is put into, may adapt themselves to the corrupt system and make a fast buck. In such an eventuality, which is very likely, if our experience with the police is anything to go by, what will the Prisons Chief do? Will he call in the army?
What needs to be done urgently is not to use the police to man prisons but to make prisons officers do their job and to weed out the corrupt elements engaged in illegal activities.
That a probe has been initiated against a Prisons Commissioner shows that the problems in prisons are not totally intractable provided the authorities are willing to grasp the nettle. What is called for is better supervision of state pens as well as disciplinary action against the errant officers. As for the thriving narcotics trade in jails, let the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) move in and bust the drug rings including corrupt jailers and others.
If the Prisons Department is of the considered opinion that the present set of prisons officers are inefficient, corrupt and beyond redemption, let them be kicked out before the police are called in.