The House of Detention at Ridiyagama in Ambalantota is where the street vagrants are sent for rehabilitation.
There are 526 inmates 223 women, 292 men, four boys and one girl (six of the residents are mentally challenged) housed at this detention center which comes under the Southern Provincial Social Service Ministry.
It is worthwhile to find out how safe their lives are in these old buildings. Out of the 45 buildings most are extremely old with cracked walls. Although no one knows how old these buildings are it is easy to estimate the period in which they were built by looking at the two huge water tanks on the premises. It is similar to the architecture of the Cargills and Millers buildings in Fort and the Maradana Railway Station that was built by the British more than a century ago.
Extending to 105 acres, these premises had been used as an army camp in the pre-1970 period. However it had later been converted into a rehabilitation center for insurgents after the 1971 insurgency according to its Superintendent Mahinda Wijesinghe. Much later it was used a detention center for street vagrants.
It was to this center that street vagrants mainly from Colombo and Kandy cities were brought in the run-up to the Non-Alignment Conference in 1976. Since then it has been operating as a detention center for street vagrants where they have been rehabilitated to a certain extent, Wijesinghe told The Sunday Leader.
According to Wijesinghe, it is the court that decides whether these street vagrants should be sent to a detention camp or not. Most of the daily food requirement for inmates is provided from the detention centre`s own garden where almost every vegetable that is available in the market is grown.
Other than rice and fish, all vegetables including onions are gathered from our own farm. We even have our own chicken-coop and we collect around 400 eggs daily- both in the morning and evening, said Wijesinghe.
However we noticed that the inmates were shouting at the Superintendent requesting better food.
We give three varieties of vegetables and fish, meat or eggs and fruit salad three times a day. They are a segment that have eaten the best food although they were street vagabonds. Through a survey we have come to know that an average beggar earns more money than a daily paid worker or sometimes even a monthly waged employee. Since they live on the streets and do not spend money for extra things they spend it on food. As a result they eat good food more than the average person. That is why they agitate to get better food than what they get here, added Wijesinghe.
According to him although street vagrants are sent for rehabilitation, the lack of funds have prevented them from getting better vocational training.
Although the Social Services Ministry does not have enough resources, they still maintain this detention center to the best of their ability. Unlike the Gangodawila detention center for young female vagrants where demand driven vocational training is provided, here at Ridiyagama we only teach the inmates how to work hard for a living. For example these are people who do not want to even sweep the garden. However we have managed to teach them agricultural work. It is good if the Ministry could allocate more funds for such programmes but we know how difficult it is for the Ministry to give us more funds, said Wijesinghe.
According to him, all detainees are sent to the detention center through court orders and once their stipulated term is over they would be produced in court and in the event if there are no guardians to take them they are kept behind for life.
Children under 18 years are sent to children`s homes and young women are sent to the house of detention for women in Gangodawila and the rest are being sent to Ridiyagama, he said.
Most of the inmates are Tamils and Muslims and 85% are mentally unstable while most of the women that are sent there are have contracted sexually transmitted diseases according to Wijesinghe.
Most of those who were arrested for loitering without valid identification documents are sent here and do not know who their parents are. Many are mentally challenged. We have our own dispensary and send patients to Ambalantota and Hambantota hospitals for further treatment if necessary, said Wijesinghe.
There are 24 attendants assigned to look after the inmates and to do their work and another 24 workers in the office.
The inmates cook their own food and healthy men have been assigned to help in vegetable cultivation and to maintain the chicken-coop.
We have provided television sets as a recreation facility and provide cloths, mats and pillows. We have noticed that 98 percent do not want to sleep on mats but on the floor even without a cloth. They are most comfortable with the basic facilities although they want the best food, said Wijesinghe.
The Sunday Leader spoke to some of the inmates and their names have been changed at the request of the Social Services Ministry.
Soma* is 48 years old and is enjoying her life to the fullest at the detention center. Although her detention period had lapsed four years ago she does not want to leave. She helps the staff maintain the premises and also looks after the sick and the elderly.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader she narrated her pathetic story where she has undergone many challenges in her life since she was 13 years old.
I was arrested by the Maradana police for being a street woman. Apparently a neighbour had raped her when she was 13 years old. Our father had died when we were very small and we led a hard life. The rape was the turning point in my life, said Soma. After her arrest she has been sent to the Gangodawila detention center for women and later has been transferred to Ridiyagama where she intends to live forever.
Fazliya* is deaf and dumb but her good looks had dragged her into prostitution. Superintendent Wijesinghe helped her communicate through sign language. Fazliya too had been a street woman in Maradana for a few years before she was arrested. She does not know her age and she claims that she is from Kataragama. According to her she has two sons who are eight and two year`s old and a four year old daughter. Other than the daughter both her sons are deaf and dumb.
Fathima* from Maligakanda too had been a street woman for many years but she was reluctant to narrate her story. I was arrested on my way to the pharmacy at Kollupitiya, she said. According to the lady attendants that look after Fathima, she is longing to get back to her `profession` once her detention period is over.
However, according to Wijesinghe none of the inmates are released even after their detention period is over unless their families or a guardian takes responsibility for them.
In addition to the street vagrants and street women yet another set is spending their last few years in life at this center.
Although they look happy and were seen chatting with the rest of the inmates, their body language speaks volumes of regret and pain. They were gazing at the gate as if they were waiting to welcome somebody.
It was heartrending to learn that they are waiting for their children. According to Wijesinghe these mothers and fathers have been thrown out by their children.
They do not want to reveal the names or whereabouts of their children. Most of them do not have good memories since they were thrown out. There was one Hewanayake that was sent here through a court order. He too could not remember any details about his children. However, once he regained his memory he told me about one of his sons who is in Singapore holding a high post. He even gave me his telephone number. I then took a call to this number and the person who answered said that he was Hewanayake`s son and said that he wanted us to look after his father and then disconnected the line. After a few years the father died and I sent several messages to this son but to no avail, Wijesinghe said.
In addition to the street vagabonds that are sent to detention camps, several systematic extrajudicial killings of beggars have been reported from and around Colombo over the past few months.
According to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) report of October 6, 2011, in the run-up to the `International Indian Film Academy` Awards (IIFA) last year, the government created propaganda about the need to beautify the city by removing beggars. Soon after, there was a series of extrajudicial killings of almost a dozen beggars in the city of Colombo. Beggars are usually disabled people in wheelchairs, and as such it is not necessary for a thief to kill a beggar. Moreover, by their very nature, beggars have very little and it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to steal what little resources they have. As no accidental circumstances have come to light, it is clear that these killings are not accidents. In one reported case, the beggar was a disabled lottery ticket seller. He suffered a severe head injury which proved to be fatal, likely caused by a blow with a heavy stone. The circumstances suggest a deliberate intention to kill, the report stated.
The report also stated that these deaths should be investigated promptly, efficiently and impartially. The responsible perpetrators should be brought before a court of law and should be prosecuted and those found guilty should be penalized.
The reported number of extrajudicial killings of beggars over the past three months
1. Nawaloka Circle, Peliyagoda
2. Pattiya Junction, Peliyagoda
3. Near the `Sanasa Bank` Biyagama Road, Peliyagoda
4. At the 4th mile post, Kandy Road Peliyagoda
5. Pattiya Junction, Peliyagoda
6. Kiribathgoda Town
7. At the 7th mile post, Kelaniya
8. Biyagama Road, Gonawala, Kelaniya