Monday, December 29, 2014

The Untold Story of the Hammond Hill (Hammenheil ) Prison

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge 

 A world renowned social psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted a prison simulation study in 1971 at the Stanford University with his student volunteers. He randomly divided these volunteers into guards and inmates and then placed in a mock prison environment. 

This study continued for six days and Zimbardo observed radical behavioural changes in guards and prisoners over time. He noticed sadistic abuse in prison guards and abject submissiveness among the prisoners.   Professor Zimbado’s Stanford prison experiment uncovered the manifestation of deindividuation, vandalism and dehumanization when ordinary people were put in to specific authoritative figures with unlimited power and control over others. He showed that ordinary people could be led to engage in anti-social acts by putting them in situations where they felt anonymous. This simulation study demonstrated how ordinary people sometimes turn evil and commit atrocities.

The Stanford prison experiment narrates the power of roles, rules, symbols, group identity and situational validation of behaviour. When the prison experiment was continuing the prisoners demonstrated symptoms of depression   and extreme stress while the guards had become more and more sadistic. This research revealed the psychological impact of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. Many years after this research Philip Zimbado expressed his thoughts thus.

"It does tell us that human nature is not totally under the control of what we like to think of as free will, but that the majority of us can be seduced into behaving in ways totally atypical of what we believe we are," 

The Stanford Prison experiment immensely helps us to understand the dynamics of the Hammond Hill Prison in Sri Lanka. Originally Hammond Hill was not a prison and it was a fortress that was under the control of the Archaeological department. With the 1971 youth uprising it was converted in to a prison. The prisoners were young Sinhala youth and the guards were mostly Tamils. The prison guards had no prior experience of handling the Sinhalese rebels and they never had any training. It became a form of an unplanned massive experiment under intense situation.

In 1971 a rebel group known as the JVP attacked the democratically elected Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s regime in Sri Lanka. The rebel group was mainly consisted of unemployed Sinhalese youth. Soon the insurrection was crushed and a large number of young rebels were taken as prisoners. The authorities decided to send hundreds of hardcore members to the Jaffna Hammond Hill Prison Island.(Hammenheil - meaning the heel of the ham because of its shape- Dutch word)

The Hammond Hill fortress was built by the Dutch in the late 17th Century and they had large nine dungeons to store gunpowder. These dungeons were turned in to prison cells in 1971. At the Hammond Hill prison, the prisoners had to face inhuman conditions. The dungeons had no ventilations and it was infested with rats. The air inside the dungeons was not breathable. The heat was intolerable and due to poor ventilation almost every prisoner became sick. Many prisoners had anxiety and panic reactions. A number of claustrophobic attacks were reported within the first few weeks of their arrival.

After nearly 37 years a former prisoner recalled the situation thus: “It was like living in hell. We had a feeling that we were trapped inside a huge concrete barrel. We could not breathe. We could not move. We were jam-packed inside the dungeon. This experience was like Pinocchio Inside the belly of the whale. But it was not a fun, extremely horrible. We slept on each other and at night rats freely walked over us. We had no human contacts. No visitor came to see us.  We were locked up most of the time”

The condition became worse when a 16 year old prisoner named Arnuna Shantha Lamahewa died as a result of savage beatings by the Police and poor sanitary facilities in the prison cell. He was a school boy who was arrested by the Police and then transferred to the Hammond Hill. We was sick for a number of days and never received any medical treatment. The inmates were helpless and sadly observed his worsening condition. Although they cried for help no guards came to open the prison doors. When the boy died the guards took his body and later buried near the Elara Naval base. 

The Hammond Hill Prison was not suitable for human habitation. This small island had no fresh water supply. There was no waste management system and dungeons were filled with urine and excrement. The sanitary condition was extremely poor and most of the prisoners suffered from skin diseases. The Hammond Hill prison had no medical facilities. The food rations were limited and it was almost impossible to eat unpalatable food with low nutrition. Often the prisoners starved. Malnutrition and chronic dehydration were common among the prisoners.  

The prisoners of the dungeon number 6 made an unsuccessful attempt to dig a secret cave. They knew it was impossible to penetrate the thick and hard lime stone. But they kept on digging the dungeon wall with primitive tools. As revealed by a former Hammond Hill prisoner, although this attempt was insane this effort gave the detainees some hope and preserved their sanity.

The Hammond Hill experience reminded them Dostoevsky’s the house of the dead. The prisoners had no way of getting any information from the outside world. They were totally cut off from the civilization. The relatives were not allowed to visit them. For a long period they had no legal representatives. Without knowing what’s happening in the outside world the prisoners believed that their comrades were fighting the government forces and they would be victorious and soon the Red guards were coming to release them from this awful prison. Most of the inmates believed this myth for a long time. Eventually they realized the truth about the uprising. When the hope was lost the prisoners became more and more depressed and aggressive.

After a few months the prisoners started analyzing their situation and ideological differences emerged. The friendly bunch of comrades who fought the government forces together risking their lives began to criticize each other. The comrades found traitors among their inner circle. It was an excruciating experience for them who were ready to sacrifice their lives for each other.   

Following these ideological clashes some inmates were branded as traitors and violently beaten by the hard core members. There was an assault team that consisted of hard-line members. This team was called 'Poriyal Hamudava (assault brigade). They instigated physical beatings of their fellow comrades. The victims pleaded the prison guards and the Naval Officers to save them from savage beatings.

Severe restrictions were imposed on so called the traitors. They were excommunicated by the other prisoners. When the prisoners had no control over their situation they tried to control it by using an ideological framework. The hardliners proclaimed that communist rules prevail in the Hammond Hill prison island and later this was known as Hammond Hill Socialism. They abolished the ownership of private property although they had very limited personal items. Even the prisoners were not allowed have their own pair of slippers as private property.

Following the ideological confrontations some victims became detached from the main group and lived in isolation. They renounced the common ideology that made unit cohesiveness before the uprising. Some collaborated with the prison guards and their interrogators. Mistrust and culture of silence could be observed among the inmates.

Many of the prisoners had negative feelings about their future. The young inmates had no outlet to reroute their biological needs at the Hammond Hill Island. Most of the detainees were in their early twenties and unmarried. They were dedicated to a political cause. But when their revolution became a fiasco and some of the trusted comrades collaborated with guards and the Police many became desolated, confused and disconnected.

According to Mr. Wilfred Peris (alias Kegalle Peris) a former Hammond Hill prisoner, homosexual relations began to emerge among some of the young prisoners. These heterosexual young men who dedicated their lives to a Marxist philosophy now found a bizarre emancipation in gay relationships. Stress anxiety and unpredictability totally changed their sexual orientation. There were graffiti of naked females on the toilet walls and some prisoners used to achieve temporary satisfaction by observing these images and performing masturbation. Despite all these drastic changes some hardliners did not trade their ideology and stayed unchanged. They constantly discussed Karl Marx’s theories and the Communist Manifesto.

Hammond Hill Prison Guards

Most of the rebels were arrested after their unsuccessful attack on the April 5th 1971 at the Jaffna Police station and the prison complex. Several of the prisoners were shot by the security forces during the attack and some Sinhalese Police officers had an urge to kill the Sinhala rebels who surrendered to the security forces. But their attempt became ineffective when the Assistant Superintendent of Police Mr. R. Sunderalingam (who was a Tamil Officer) intervened. Mr. Sunderalingam ordered the men to disperse and to give medical treatment to the wounded suspects. Even today the former Hammond Hill prisoners remember this Tamil Police Officer who saved their lives with absolute respect.

Before transporting the prisoners to the Hammond Hill Prison they were savagely beaten at the Jaffna Police station and at the Jaffna prison. They were then taken to the Hammond Hill island by boats.

The prison guards were very harsh on the prisoners at the Hammond Hill. There was no supervision by senior officers. For long hours the prisoners were locked inside the dungeons that filled with extreme heat. It was so dark inside the dungeons even during the day time.  The prisoners had no sense of orientation. Even for a life-threatening medical emergency the guards never opened the doors. The tension went up to such a point on one occasion the inmates broke the iron doors and set themselves free. The prisoners gathered under a Bodhi tree that was near the dungeons. But they had no intention of fleeing the island. Soon the Naval guards surrounded the prisoners and ordered them to surrender. The Naval guards said that they would open fire if any prisoner tries to escape. One of the educated and respected prisoners among the group explained the Naval guards that the inmates had no war with the Navy and they were only fighting injustices committed by the prison guards. Their aim was not to escape but to have fresh air which is a basic human right. Later this prisoner was identified as Mr. S. D Somarathna.

Although the prison guards of the Hammond Hill were cruel to the inmates on most occasions the prisoners still recall some guards who had humane qualities. Mr. Vallipuram and Mr. Pasupathi were two Tamil prison guards who were very sympathetic to the young Sinhalese rebels who were held at the Hammond Hill prison in 1971. Mr. Vallipuram felt exceedingly sorry for these youth and often told the prisoners that one day they would be released and never to abandon the hope. Within several years his prediction became a reality and the Government released all of the Hammond Hill Prisoners.

Hammond Hill After 40 Years

The Hammond Hill is not a prison any more. It has become a tourist detonation. The Sri Lanka Navy is running a tourist hotel in the island with all the luxuries. It has become Sri Lanka’s Alcatraz prison attracted by locals and foreign tourists. People have forgotten the 1971 insurrection and the former prisoners of Hammond Hill.

All the 1971 prisoners were released by the President J.R Jayawardene when he came to power in 1977. Although the Hammond Hill prisoners became free many are still trapped in their ruminations. Some were able to move on with their lives forgetting the emotional wounds. But for some Hammond Hill has become a nightmare.  Today these men are in their sixties and a large percentage is still hounded by the reminiscences of the Hammond Hill Prison.

It is evident that majority of the former inmates had abandoned their radical political ideology and now lead politically inactive lives. Vasantha alias Mabole Rexy was one of the very few remaining members of the JVP who stayed with the movement. He was an active JVP member from 1971 to 2005.

Mr. Atlas Bandara who was a wealthy businessman in 1971 and volunteered to rescue Rohana Wijeweera from the Jaffna Prison now living his life in poverty. He has severe disappointments about the 71 events. He spent a number of years at the Hammond Hill facing copious difficulties.
His driver Sirisena Alwis alias Baldhi Sira too had to spend several years at the Hammond Hill with his master. After his release Sirisena Alwis started drinking heavily and died several years ago.

Young Lal Somasiri was attracted to the movement as a school boy. He abandoned his higher education and joined the 1971 uprising. Lal Somasiri had a tough time at the Hammond Hill when he gave his statement to the Criminal Investigation Department revealing the rebel leader Rohana Wijeweera’s message after his arrest at Ampara on the 13th of March 1971. At the CJC (Criminal Justice Commission) Rohana Wijeweera denied delivering such a message to Lal Somasiri. Soon the hardliners at the Hammond Hill prison denounced him as a traitor. Today he is politically inactive and for a number of years he was forced to spend an undercover life.

Mr. Wanigabadu now a practicing lawyer has repressed his memories of the Hammond Hill saga. He does not want to remember about the events that occurred at the Hammond Hill Prison. I saw the real human nature at the Hammond Hill Prison, Mr Wanigabadu says

Mr. Jayathilaka once an active and dedicated member now runs a small business and living a simple life. He has no connections with his former radical political party. Mr. Piyumasena Kannangara who participated in the Jaffna prison attack no longer connected with any political party and does not believe in political movements.

Mr. Birty Ranjith masterminded the Jaffna prison attack in 1971. He organized the attack to rescue the rebel leader Rohana Wijeweera who was held under tight security at the Jaffna prison. The attack went for several hours but ended in failure. Birty Ranjith was arrested and then severely beaten. His attackers broke his leg. He suffered heavily physically and mentally. At the Hammond Hill Birty made an unsuccessful attempt to reanalyze the events that occurred on the April 5th 1971. The JVP leaders refused to accept his conclusions. After sometime Birty became disappointed in the 71 events. He felt that he had been used and then betrayed. He left the movement while he was still at the Hammond Hill. Today Birty Ranjith lives in exile in Germany. He is a political writer and had published his experiences in 1971 uprising and subsequent prison life at the Hammond Hill.

Mr. Wilfred Peris (alias Kegalle Peris) remained a loyal member and worked with the Movement for a number of years. However ruminations of the 71 saga impacted him profoundly. He has had suicidal ideations and sense of foreshortened future. During 1988 he left the party and worked with paramilitary groups. He later documented his 71 experiences and disturbed political events that occurred in 1988 2nd JVP Uprising. According to these disclosures Wilfred had helped the Government and Paramilitary forces to capture the undercover JVP activists. He writes that he had participated in interrogations and witnessed a number of killings. Today he is living overseas under  political asylum.  

The psychological impact of the Hammond Hill prison was never been studied although it was a dark part of Sri Lanka’s political history. Hammond Hill signifies a beginning of a gloomy era- political detention system and gross violation of human rights. Although Hammond Hill was an eye opener the society never learned anything from this tortures experience. The young generation who witnessed the social violence in 1971 launches another uprising in 1988 causing deaths of nearly 60,000 people.

Despite all odds Hammond Hill shows us human behaviour in extreme conditions. Unusual human relationships under extreme circumstances. It narrates the wickedness of the prison guards and also humane qualities that some possessed. Hammond Hill story described sadistic hearts as well as the kind warmth feelings under the uniform.

Hammond Hill recounts group dynamics, collective behaviour of youth who became united under one political ideology. They were ready for extreme sacrifices in the name of this ideology. When the political attempt became unsuccessful disagreements surfaced. The comradeship was shifting to the opposite pole – the traitor. The rebels denounced their fellow comrades in a tiny isolated island. Those who fought for one common political aim started fighting with each other. For some detainees the prison guards and interrogators became their new saviours. Some had radical behavioural changes at the prison sometimes accepting changes in their sexual orientation. Some sustained permanent emotional scars after facing horrors of the Hammond Hill. 

The inmates at the Hammond Hill prison underwent severe environmental and manmade stressors. Apparently a large number of prisoners suffered from depression and anxiety   related ailments that were never diagnosed or treated. Perhaps time healed many emotional wounds. But for some victims time didn’t. Two of the former inmates Rev Morawaka Badhhiya and Susil Galgamuva committed suicide less than 15 years after their release from the Hammond Hill Prison. Therefore posttraumatic impact of the Hammond Hill prison cannot be underestimated.


  1. I was in Jaffna during 19901 - 92 and unfortunately couldn't visit this place due to the war situation. However I heard a lot of facts similar to which you have explained on this post.

    Inhuman treatment for Prisoners is a common experience in the majority of Countries in the World.

    Appreciate as a very informative article.

    1. Many thanks , you should document your valuable experiences


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