The difference of a second

If seeing was believing, having to believe that the world is a small square surrounded by a huge wall ever since you open your eyes is certainly pathetic.

The best interest of a child is considered as paramount by courts when dealing with any matter involving a child, mainly according to the Convention on Rights of Child. Thus, if best interest of a child could be catered for, children below five years are sent to live with their trial-awaiting or already convicted mothers at the prison by a court order. But according to some authorities, this is decided in Sri Lanka depending on whether the children are still breastfed or whether alternative accommodation can be found for them or not.

The Welikada Prison is the maximum security prison in Sri Lanka and also the largest. This divides into two as male and female sections and the part carrying children is established in the female section. Unlike the rest of the prison, a clear attempt to create a child friendly environment is seen in this section. The care extended by the female prison officials and the mothers themselves was seen as a guiding light on the little faces. There is a pre school that runs on every weekday and also a small play ground for the children to have fun. It is much segregated from the rest of the prison but it does not necessarily imply that these children do not witness or feel the everyday rage, depression, regret or bad habits experienced by the numerous delinquents around them at all. For them, growing up is like crossing a rough river on a raft trying not to get wet.

‘Bliss Beyond Bars’ was a joint project the rotaract club of Kotelwala Defence University conducted with the rotaract club of American National College to provide for these innocent children. Whatever their mothers had committed, whether they are convicted guilty or not, the kids should never be a part of the matter. They are yet to live their bright futures ahead of them. Bearing this in mind, we loaded them with toys, dry rations, chocolates, biscuits and other sanitary items to make sure their lives are lived more comfortably. These kids only get portions of the three solid meals provided for their mothers. So, it is only through a donation and so on that they get to taste something delicious like a chocolate. To top that, stocks of other items like milk powder provided by the government each month are also very limited. This, on the part of the government is also logical as they have to provide for all the prisoners in the whole island Hence they can only cover up for the minimum level of requisites. Thus, the prison officials always look up to donors to fulfill any deficiencies. If you are reading this and have an intention to make a donation, you will always be welcome.

The activities with the children happily proceeded and a small boy sang a few songs he learnt at the pre school for us as well. But most of these stories are yet to face their endings. Once the child reaches five years, he or she is sent to the care of a relative or in the absence of a relative, to a home. Then the mother who no longer keeps a child is sent to the usual cells with the other prisoners. This results in much emotional trauma for both the parties. Some babies are born within the prison itself; that is if the mother was pregnant with the child at the time of receiving her sentence. Separating from the child at such a young age must not be easy for any mother. But the legal realities of the world are as such and everybody should abide by them. The child cannot be kept in the prison forever.

Meanwhile we also seized the opportunity to get a glimpse of the rest of the prison. When we passed them on our way in and way out, some were seeing sweeping the compound and watering the plants. Most of them were reciting sermons around the bo-tree hovering over the premises. Some others were roaming around lost in their own worlds. The official who guided us also showed us an incredible wall  painting done by an inmate. She also stated that a mosque, a kovil and a church are also established within the premises. When we walked past sweeping the crowd I don’t know what exactly was going through their minds. Were they jealous? Were they envying the freedom we enjoyed? Were they honestly feeling guilty for the reason why they were there? Or were they still praying for justice? Some of them were serving lifetime imprisonments. There were also those who were to serve sentences for multiple lifetimes. Some of them were convicted for murders, others for drugs and theft and so forth and so on.

On the outer wall of the prison, it is written in huge letters that “Prisoners are also humans”. Of course they are. There is an accepted system of treatment even for the person who has committed the severest of the crimes in the civilized world. But then why are the people in the prison and those who are outside leading two contradictory life styles? Because there is a difference. The difference is a second; the second they felt compelled to commit what they shouldn’t have done.

Article by Rtr. Thamalee Wijekoon