With the imposition of strict lockdown restrictions across the country, those inside the jails have been neglected in terms of health and hygiene. Numerous sectors have been affected including the economy, education, domestic workers, sex workers, migrant workers, and prisons. While most of these sectors were easily fixable and could be reached for help, prison is that one sector where the spreading of the virus is easier while reaching out for help is difficult. The lockdown has been used as an illegal tool by the government, against the people in undemocratic ways while no attention has yet been paid to the pathetic condition of the prisoners who’ve been struggling with the infectious virus without any preventive measures.
As per the report by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Maharashtra, almost all the prisons across the country have welcomed the virus, ultimately leading the virus to affect the prisoners as well as the staff.
The report has been authored by Mihir Desai but is a combined effort of many persons including Vijay Hiremath, Shiraz Prabhu, Sandhya Gokhale, Lara Jesani, Geeta Seshu, Chayanika Shah, and many other members of PUCL (Maharashtra).
With the increasing cases of the coronavirus inside the prisons, it has become the need of the hour to take precautions keeping in mind the erstwhile incidents. Since the jails are used to constant supplies of goods from outside; there are high chances of the emission of the virus to the larger public inside jails. The fact above all is that the rights of the prisoners are as important as ordinary people.
The three main recommendations which must be followed inside the prisons are as follows:
One of the three ways of restricting the virus from spreading in is to maintain physical distancing. Adding to it, inmates are supposed to maintain hygiene by washing their hands regularly and wearing masks, especially in a public area. The second most important way is to keep a distance from those infected with the virus or those who are suspected to have been affected by the virus and also, they must be institutionally quarantined. The third way includes- testing of those suspected to have the virus through the RC- PCR test also known as swab test.
Why is the virus spreading inside prisons?
Prisons in India are highly crowded. The number of prisoners exceeds the capacity of the prisoners that are living in that space. Prisoners have visitors from outside of the prisons which may include their relatives and lawyers which can act as carriers of the virus and even the prisoners have regular court visits where they might get in contact with the virus too. Not just that, but until recently, there have been numerous illegal arrests of the activists and this way, the recent admissions to the jails may have been one of the reasons for the virus outbreak inside the jails. New inmates must have been responsible for the fast-spreading of the Corona Virus. The proper way of admitting-in new prisoners is by first putting into quarantine and then letting them in.
Most importantly, the staff members keep going out and visiting in, which could be one of the major reasons for the virus outbreak amongst the inmates.
The role played by the Supreme Court in improving the pathetic condition of the prison inmates:
On 16th March 2020, the Supreme Court observed in its order that- the prisons are overcrowded i.e. there are 1339 prisons in India which has around 4, 66, 084 inmates living in. As per the studies, like any other contagious disease, the coronavirus too spreads in closed spaces and so, there are high chances of it to spread inside the prisons. So, as to take precautions, the first step to be taken is to stop the visiting in and visiting out of the jails to prevent the virus from entering in.
On 23rd March 2020, the SC issued directions to the State Governments and observed as follows:
- Taking into consideration the possibility of outside transmission, “we direct that the physical presence of all the undertrial prisoners before the courts must be stopped forthwith and recourse to video conferencing must be taken for all purposes.”
- Also, there should not be any delay in shifting a sick person to a Nodal Medical Institution in case of any possibility of infection is seen. We also direct that prison specific readiness and response plans must be developed in consultation with medical experts.
- A monitoring team must be set up at the state level to ensure that the directives issues with regard to prison and remand homes are being complied with scrupulously.
- We direct that each state/union Territory shall constitute a High Powered Committee comprising of- (i) Chairman of the State Legal Services Committee, (ii) the Principal Secretary (Home/Prison) by whatever designation is known as, (ii) Director-General of Prison(s), to determine which class of prisoners can be released on parole or an interim bail for such period as may be thought appropriate.
- It is made clear that we leave it open for the High Powered Committee to determine the category of prisoners who should be released as aforesaid, depending upon the nature of offence, the number of years to which he or she has been sentenced, or the severity of the offence with which he/she is charged with and is facing trial or any other relevant factor, which the Committee may consider appropriate.
This report by PUCL puts light on the pathetic condition of the prisoners where they are prone to the contagious virus and must be prevented in the first place. While this report particularly talks about the situations in the jails of Maharashtra, technically this is exactly what is happening across the country. The immediate demands put by PUCL are:
- Immediate decision by the High Powered Committee to allow even prisoners charged under special laws such as UAPA, MCOCA, NDPS to be released on temporary bail or emergency parole during Covid times, especially if they are above 60 years of age or are suffering comorbidities;
- All willing prisoners and prison staff be regularly tested through the swab test and their reports be given to them and communicated to their families;
- All vacancies of especially medical staff in prisons be immediately filled up; (d) Prisoners be allowed at least two free telephone calls/ video calls every week for ten minutes each with their relatives/ lawyers.
- Committees as set out in the Jan Adalat Case be immediately constituted and be directed to make surprise regular visits to prisons to ensure that all human rights of prisoners are protected. Accountability mechanisms be set up in terms of the formats spelt out by CHRI.
- Temporary prisons including quarantine centres and Covid care centres should meet the minimum requirements as prescribed for regular prisons.
Unsa Khan is a student of Media Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia and a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.