Priests and Religious from all parts of the country, serving in all major prisons in Sri Lanka : Bogambara - Dumbara in Kandy, Welikada & Magazine in Colombo, Mahara prison at Ragama, Galle & Boossa in Galle, Anuradhapura, Jaffna, Badulla, Wariyapola, Trincomalle, Batticoloa, Kuruvita in Ratnapura and Kegalle came together to learn and share their experiences.
There were few well experienced participants, with more than 25 years working in different prisons in the country. Hence at the outset participants were given the opportunity to introduce themselves and share their valuable experiences. Rev. Sr. Alexander Milligoda of Charity Sisters and Rev. Sr. Barbra AC were the most experienced prison servants among the 24 participants present. Participants shared their work “done for & with” the prisoners and also for the families of the prisoners. There were several Priests and Religious with recent appointments as prison chaplains who were eager to learn from others.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” - Luke 4 ; 18
A powerful scriptural presentation was made by Rev. Fr Nishantha Cooray TOR, laying a firm foundation to the entire workshop, explaining the Mission of Jesus and our Mission, spelling out the importance of the Prison Ministry. It was followed by the film “Jail” a movie that described the life of a prisoner who was detained with fabricated charges and was tortured severely in prison but finally released having proved his innocence.
The participants were then exposed to the realities as they listened to the testimonies of the ex-prisoners on the second day. Some of the ex-prisoner’s present, had served in prisons for more than 10 years due to miscarriage of Justice and released without charges. Their testimonies made very clear, that there are so many innocent persons made victims of miscarriage of Justice, detained without fair trial due to the defective Justice System in Sri Lanka. Several questions by the participants were directed to the male & female ex-prisoners, mainly regarding the incidents of arrest, prison conditions and the life in prisons.
Mr. Tissa Jayasinghe, a Former Commissioner of Prisons and former Superintendent of Bogambara - Dumbara Prison, shared his long years of experiences in several major prisons in Sri Lanka. He brought out practical issues that the prison authorities face due to the over crowdedness in prisons and efforts made by the officers to rehabilitate the prisoners. He also admitted the malpractices of some prison officers and the absences of a well formulated rehabilitation programme for the prisoners.
Human Rights and Rights of the Prisoners were introduced by Mr. Rukshan Fernando, a Human Rights Activist. In his presentation, he cited several examples of prisoners detained as suspects who were already punished even before they were tried in court and therefore he emphasized the need for a fair trial. Further he recalled the incidents where several prisoners were massacred while in State custody for which perpetrators were not brought to Justice. This was followed by a presentation by Mr. Suren D. Perera, Human Rights Lawyer and the legal officer of HRO. His presentation explained “Who are in Prisons?” and “for What” dealing with the legal process that finally result, suspects being imprisoned and the few opportunities they have to prove their innocence at the Court of Appeal.
Fr. Nandana Manatunga, with the use of the power point, explained in details, the "Nelson Mandela Rules" comprising 122 set of rules which was developed by the “Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners” (SMR) adopted by the United Nations in 1955. “No Prisoner should be subjected to Torture or inhuman degrading treatment or punishment”. He added that the conditions in Sri Lankan prisons due to the over crowdedness result in physical & Mental Torture as well as inhuman degrading treatment and punishment and therefore monitoring of prisons is also a duty of the prison chaplains. “It is not only prisoners but even those who visit them go through in human treatment” he said.
The participants were then divided into 04 groups and given the opportunity to engage in a group discussion to explore ways of expanding their mission in prisons. Rich and new learnings were presented during the plenary gathering.
Rev. Fr. Sanjeewa Mendis, National Director of the Commission for Prisons and Migrants, highlighted the importance of the Prison Ministry and thanked Fr. Nandana and his team at HRO for organizing this educative workshop.
Further, the participants decided to print a poster for the Prison Week scheduled for September and also requested for further workshops to enhance their knowledge and learn from the experiences of each other. Fr. Nandana thanked the bishops conference for bringing in, the Prison Ministry under a National Commission and also thanked Bishop Raymond Wickramasinghe, President of the Commission for Prisons and Migrants and Rev. Fr. Sanjeewa Mendis for their collaboration in organizing the workshop.