19 April 2016

Prison stories

Cinnamon Gardens Police Station
A schoolboy prank landed me in a cell once. It happened in the year 1984. I had offered my opponent, Ishan Weerakoon, a draw even though I had a clear advantage in one of the rounds of the Sri Lanka Chess Nationals in order to partake of a mouth-watering deal at the Holiday Inn, along with some friends. They had advertised a savoury buffet for Rs 35 per head. We assumed they were making up for losses incurred in a similar event held in the previous week, ‘Sweet tooth symphony’, an all-you-can eat spread of sweets and desserts for just 10 bucks.

The previous week, after sampling in ample quantities everything that Holiday Inn had to offer, we had piled into Amesh Perera’s white Benz and driven around the town. Someone had suggested that the huge school bell ought to be rung at midnight. That’s exactly what we did. I got to do the honours.

This time around, again with full stomachs, we got into Amesh’s car and went directly to school. Someone said there were some cakes in the Prefects’ Room. As we walked in, a security guard woke up and shouted. The boys panicked. They need not have since they were all senior prefects. They ran. Someone whispered ‘let’s at least ring the bell before we get out’. I didn’t have to volunteer. 

Everyone had run off by that time. The rope was tied a bit higher and a tad tighter. Took a while to undo. Rang. Ran. I sprinted towards the basketball court, planning to jump over the short parapet wall and into the waiting Benz on Reid Avenue. Two men, one armed with a pole and the other a yakada-inna, an iron rod, came running from around the building and I turned and ran in the opposite direction. I lost them somewhere, using all my ‘local-knowledge’ of the school’s architecture and lesser-known passageways. Jumped over another wall and got on to Rajakeeya Mawatha.

My friends would come looking for me, I told myself. ‘My friends,’ 13 of them, didn’t miss the 14th and realized I was not with them only when they broke up for the night in Thimbirigasyaya. 

By the time they found me, I was being questioned by some Police officers outside the Cinnamon Gardens Police Station. The two men had emerged from nowhere and given chase. They screamed hora, hora and I had nowhere to run but towards the Police Station. Was locked up. 

There was another person in the cell which was dark, dirty and stinking. He was sleeping. Three others were thrown into the cell a few minutes later, just as the ‘senior cell-mate’ was waking up. I was about to ask him what had brought him there, just to make conversation, when one of the new arrivals beat me to it. Mr Senior, clad in a dirty shirt and a pair of shorts, had a surly look about him and a gruff voice.

He growled at the questioner pointing out that the reason is immaterial and that what mattered was that we were all inside. I was thrilled to bits that I had not been the one to ask the question.

A few minutes later, our Vice Principal E C Gunasekara, Kataya to us all, came to say ‘hello’. He asked a few questions and went away. Mr Senior took me to a side. He told me that I was going to be released. I asked him how he knew. He said that’s how things are; someone comes, you get released. 

He had a request. He wanted me to get him some kudu, heroin. I asked him how I could do this (I showed what I thought was genuine concern and willingness to help). He said that he would be shifted to the Welikada Prison in a few days and said that there were ‘gentlemen’ there: ehe inne mahaththuru...mun vage evun nemei (‘There you get gentlemen, not like men such as these’). He was pointing to the three newcomers. He told me that anything could be got at Welikada. He told me where to go, what to get and how to smuggle it into the cell. I was astounded. A few minutes later I was out. 

One line stayed with me: ehe inne mahaththuru. The impression he gave was that anything could be got in the prisons. 

The other day there was a fight. Inmates had attacked a team of Police officers searching the prisons. The officers were beaten by iron rods and other such weaponry. Over 40 officers sustained injuries. Here’s the question: how did they come to possess iron rods? Aren’t the premises checked regularly? It is unthinkable that drugs and weapons and who knows what else get smuggled into prisons without the knowledge of the prison staff. 

There seems to be more here than meets the eye. These men were armed and ready. It is hard to think that corruption within the system explains everything. Either way, it is clear that the prisons need to be cleaned up. 

I remember a friend telling about a long drawn out feud in and around Gampaha. It was resolved by some thugs in the end, but at one point a contract killer had offered to ‘bury the hatchet, once and for all’. Apart from the money, he had wanted just one thing: visit eka genna (bring the ‘visit’). He was referring, apparently, to the lunch packet that a visitor can bring an inmate at Welikada. 

My cellmate seems to have got it all sorted out. There were ‘gentlemen’ in the remand facility. People one could count on. Things were better there. Things were available there. Comfy. 

I am not inside a Police cell right now. Not inside a remand prison. I am ‘outside’. It somehow make me feel very uncomfortable, if you know what I mean. 

*This article was first published in the Daily News, November 17, 2010.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene