Today, 27 January, the Sri Lanka Students for Liberty and the South Asia Students for Liberty will be hosting an online Zoom event titled “Are Prisoners’ Rights Human Rights?”
The organisers have been facilitating the conversation around prisoners’ rights and prison conditions for some time now, and today’s event will further the conversation, featuring Ambika Satkunanathan.
A former member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) and Chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, Satkunanathan is a lawyer and human rights advocate and has worked with HRCSL from 2015 to 2020, where she led the first-ever national study of prisons.
The study was conducted in 20 prisons around the country, which consisted of inspections of prisons, administering questionnaires, and conducting interviews with prisoners. Interviews were also conducted with prison officers from each prison as well as external stakeholders involved in the criminal justice and correctional process, including state actors from all relevant ministries.
Based on the information gathered, the conditions of prisons and treatment of prisoners were evaluated within the fundamental human rights standards outlined in the Constitution of Sri Lanka and the domestic legal framework regulating the administration of prisons, as well as relevant international human rights obligations of the state.
Speaking to The Morning Brunch, Satkunanathan shared with us that those who will be joining in on the event can look forward to a discussion on the findings of the national study on prisons, published by the HRCSL, to understand the compatibility between our current prison system and Sri Lanka’s human rights obligations, as well as to identify the underlying issues that impact the rights of prisoners in the island.
She shared that the findings and recommendations address the knowledge gap and attempt to increase the general understanding of the prison system in the hopes to also highlight the shortcomings of the framework.
Audiences will garner a greater understanding of the treatment and conditions in prisons and of prisoners, with reference to the communities that are most affected, particularly those from marginalised communities. She provided that via the study, the Commission observed that certain categories of prisoners – such as prisoners on death row, women, young offenders, prisoners detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), and prisoners with disabilities – are more vulnerable than others, providing that the specific challenges they face must be considered in policymaking in order to ensure they have equal and equitable access to a chance for reform.
Satkunanathan said that there are foreign nationals who are prisoners and that they are also at a particular disadvantage as they are in a foreign country; they do not know the legal system or the language, are unable to gain access to lawyers, etc. She said that we must question our understanding of the justice system, “of crime and punishments, and of imprisonment and harm”.
“People believe that those in prison are evil people, but more often than not, they are persons who could not afford to pay a fine – sometimes as small as Rs. 3,000 – and are imprisoned for six months,” she said, adding that we must re-evaluate how our penal system, our criminal justice system is implemented.
Satkunanathan shared that particularly during this current situation in the midst of the pandemic, we can take a look at these longstanding systematic structures and attempt to reform them, adding that we must also take a long and hard look at whether the prison system is still doing what it originally set out to do and whether we need to have it in place.
Together with the research in furthering conversation regarding the prisons and prisoners rights, Satkunanathan said they hope to encourage authorities to engage in the formulation and implementation of better practices and policies in order to protect and promote prisoners’ rights and strengthen the correctional system.
Visit the Sri Lanka Students for Liberty Facebook page to watch the event.