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What Will Happen If Coronavirus Hits Indian Prisons?

Lawyer Ajay Verma, who works on prison reforms, on how the government should tackle this threat.
A policeman walks inside the Tihar Jail in New Delhi March 11, 2013.
Mansi Thapliyal / Reuters
A policeman walks inside the Tihar Jail in New Delhi March 11, 2013.

As the cases of coronavirus rise in India, there are growing concerns that prisons can become an epicentre of the pandemic because of overcrowding and substandard sanitation conditions. The World Health Organisation has warned that prisons across the world can expect “huge mortality rates” from COVID-19 unless they take immediate action.

Lawyers and activists have filed petitions in the Delhi High Court, seeking urgent measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. A plea by advocate Shobha Gupta sought the release of all inmates above the age of 50 years and/or those who are not medically fit, undergoing imprisonment for petty and minor offences.

Another PIL by lawyer Vikas Padora said most of the prisons in India are “overcrowded and functioning beyond capacity” making them “fertile” ground for the highly infectious disease.

In 2018, the capacity of India’s prisons was 3,96,223 inmates, while the actual occupancy was 4,66,084 — prisons had 17.6% more inmates than they have capacity for — according to the Prison Statistics of India (PSI) 2018 released by the National Crime Records Bureau.

Earlier this week, taking suo motu cognisance of the risk of coronavirus spreading in prisons across the country, the Supreme Court directed all state governments and Union territories to set up high-level committees to determine who could be released on parole for four to six weeks.

Tihar Jail authorities said on 23 March that they will release about 3,000 prisoners in the next few days. About 20 inmates from Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat Jail were quarantined on Monday after showing symptoms of coronavirus, The Times of India reported. Tihar jail has also quarantined 18 inmates till now.

India is not the only country dealing with this problem—activists in the United States, Canada and other countries have also pointed out that once the virus hits someone in jail, it will be like a “wildfire”.

Advocate Ajay Verma, convener of the National Forum for Prison Reforms, told HuffPost India in an interview that even if one case goes under the radar, COVID-19 will spread very quickly in India’s prisons.

Verma, who is also the head of the India chapter of International Bridges to Justice, a nonprofit organisation that promotes judicial reform and advocates for early access to counsel for prisoners, said that releasing prisoners involved in non-violent crimes will help decongest prisons and that state governments should make interim arrangements to house these released prisoners.

To manage the panic among inmates, Verma suggested counselling through video conference and starting e-mulaqats for inmates when social meetings have been halted.

Edited excerpts:

1. What steps should the Centre and state governments take to prevent the spread of coronavirus in prisons? Will decongesting be enough to ensure that COVID-19 doesn’t hit prisons?

According to me, the best way is to release the people involved in non-violent crimes for a period of 45 days subject to review. Apart from this, social visits by outsiders should be suspended in all jails. Police need to stop arresting people in non-violent cases and if there are any new inmates, they should be properly screened and put in separate ward for 14 days. Screening of prison staff should also be implemented. All inter-jail transfers should be suspended for 30 days. Inmates who are over the age of 60 years or have pre-existing medical conditions should be released.

The terms of bail should be relaxed. They should consider personal bond for those who have already got bail orders and are not able to furnish surety bonds. Each state has its own parole and furlough rules under Prison manual — parole is for emergency situations and inmates are granted furlough if they maintain good conduct throughout the year. State governments should use these powers in a liberal manner at the moment without any delay.

The biggest question is: where will the released prisoners go in the lockdown period? Where will an outstation prisoner go? The government should make some interim arrangements, like having them housed in government-run shelter homes or give them permission to travel to their hometowns with an e-pass/document.

2. You are suggesting social visits should be suspended, but there was recently a riot at the Dum Dum central jail, allegedly over a ban on prisoners meeting family members. In case more strict measures need to be put in place, what can prison authorities do to manage situations like these in a humane manner?

The riots in West Bengal happened because there were no hearings and social visits have also been stopped. Authorities should arrange for e-mulaqats instead. Punjab has already started this system. Skype and regular phone calls can also be done. This will help reduce the panic situation among inmates. Delhi and Telangana have also stopped social visits and other states are considering the same.

3. What will happen if even one case of COVID-19 is reported in an Indian prison?

There are already suspected cases. From what I have heard, people in Tihar are also panicking. It can spread very quickly in prisons if unnoticed. The infrastructure of a lot of prisons in India is not in a good shape. They should have isolation wards to separate any suspected case or they can be shifted to the isolation wards in hospitals where there is security. It will be a horrible situation if coronavirus starts spreading in prisons.

Adequate supply of soap and sanitisers for personal hygiene of inmates should be supplied. Women inmates should have a sufficient supply of sanitary napkins.

4. How are the medical facilities in prisons? Are prisoners regularly checked to see if anyone is showing symptoms of coronavirus?

Thermal screening of all people and inmates entering prisons has started in many jails. New inmates are now being sent to a separate ward and being kept under observation.

5. Is it being done in prisons across the country or certain states?

Delhi and Kerala have implemented it. We don’t know the status in other states yet. This must be done in all states because even a single positive case of coronavirus in prisons can create serious trouble for the prison administration.

6. Have you received any requests from the families of Kashmiris who were arrested after the abrogation of Article 370?

Government has already released some political leaders in Kashmir. No one has yet approached me regarding this matter.

7. IBJ has worked towards providing mental health care to prisoners. With family visits being suspended and more restrictions being put in place now, what can be done to offer psychological support to the inmates?

Tihar has a mental health programme. Mental Health Foundation (MHF) is allowed to visit. Counselling used to be provided to inmates by volunteers under the supervision of a psychologist. That should continue. In order to avoid physical contact, the same may be provided through video conferencing also.

During this time, we are all worried while sitting at home. Prisoners then must be even more anxious. They need proper counselling at this time. We (IBJ) worked with the Department of Psychology, Indraprastha College for Women and Delhi Prisons to help female jail inmates. Every day, five students used to go to the prison and interact with inmates under the supervision of their teacher. It was a successful initiative.

8. New York is now dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons, including the infamous Rikers Island. Have you been following how other countries have been dealing with this issue?

Throughout the world, as you can see, prisoners are the most vulnerable to coronavirus. Countries are therefore taking warscale measures — Australia and Iran have released prisoners. Delhi has announced about 3,000 inmates will be released and Maharashtra said about 5,000 prisoners.

(Ed—Iran has temporarily freed about 85,000 prisoners, including political prisoners. Al-Jazeera reported that many of the released prisoners “are likely to be protesters who were arrested during anti-government demonstrations in November” and they are expected to be taken back into custody on April 3.

New South Wales has introduced legislation that allows certain inmates to be released to control the spread of Covid-19 in prisons and beyond, according to The Guardian.)

9. Some state governments have been using prison labour to make items such as masks and sanitisers. What are the safeguards that should be in place to prevent exploitation in the time of a crisis?

The inmates get wages for the work they do in prisons. Even for making masks and sanitisers, they will get wages. I don’t see any exploitation in this. They have to either allot the work or pay without any work. In many jails, authorities don’t have enough work to assign to the inmates. The prisoners can be a productive force to make masks and sanitisers. Jail number 5 of Delhi Prisons already manufactures hand wash for regular use.

(Ed—Inmates of Uttar Pradesh, Kerala and Nagpur have been making face masks and sanitisers)

This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact