COVID 19 In Prisons: Jails Turning Into Hotbeds for Coronavirus?

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On 16th March 2020 , the SC asked the states and UT’s to draft their plans to avoid spread of Covid-19 in prisons. In 2018 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data showed that estimate 1400 prisons in the country were further packed with around 450,000 people.

This is almost 60,000 over the sanctioned capacity. The idea was to decongest them. There were states that showed willingness to release some inmates on parole or bail. As of June 2020, 805 jail staffers and inmates have tested positive for Covid-19 across jails in the country (Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative).

Conditions of Under-Trial Prisoners

In Delhi, on 28 March, interim bail was further allowed for under-trial prisoners in certain categories. For example: Those facing trial in a case which has a maximum punishment of 7 years or less. But exceptions were also laid down. For eg: Interim bail would not be granted to those accused under Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, Section 4 (penetrative sexual assault) of the POCSO Act, Indian Penal Code’s (IPC) rape offences, acid attack accused, those booked under the Prevention of Corruption Act etc.

But in the next 3 months the eligibility criteria of interim bail were then relaxed to include those accused for murder, culpable homicide, attempt to murder, attempt to commit culpable homicide, Section 498A etc. Release was also allowed for prisoners suffering from HIV, cancer, chronic kidney dysfunction, hepatitis B or C etc. A report by the NALSA in May said 42,000 under-trials and 18,000 convicts were further released. 

Opinion of the Committee  

But, experts feel that the classification made by the committee shouldn’t have been then based on the offences committed. It should be more inclined towards age, comorbidity, pregnancy, disabilities. i.e. health should have been the primary criteria, rather than the nature of offence.

Problem of overcrowding

Overcrowding is more in big cities such as Mumbai’s Arthur Road prison. In order to maintain proper social distancing the jails would have to reduce their official capacity to 50%. Even the courts are working at 30% capacity they have rejected a large number of bail applications on factors like case papers aren’t available. Though nearly 14,000 bail applications were forwarded to trial courts. So the situation though seems simple it isn’t. But medical teams from government hospitals are visiting prisons. Temporary jails have also been created. For e.g. Maharashtra has 37 such jails in 27 districts. These measures are further taken to quarantine new admissions or those those who have tested positive. 

Transparency of Jails 

Transparency about prison affairs have also reduced. During normal situations under-trial prisoners are then produced in courts every 14 days but not anymore. Meeting once a week is reduced to video and phone calls. Meeting with lawyers has been replaced with phone calls. A picture based on anecdotal data suggests that masks and hygiene issues are being taken care of. Apparently fear of covid-19 has increased cleanliness inside prisons. But one cannot deny that when situation gets out of control blame game would begin. 

Another question which arises out of this situation is backfiring of release of convicted criminals. There have been instances reported in Mumbai about “recidivism” or repeat offences. But when one looks at it from global lens recidivism is less than 6%. Where as in certain developed country its as high as 50%. 


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