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As Covid-19 Hits India’s Prisons, Expert Explains Why Decongestion Is Not Enough

Madhurima Dhanuka, who works on prison reforms, says the focus should also have been on the inmates still inside the prison and the staff.
Prisoners stand in a queue after they were released on parole at the Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad, March 30, 2020.
Prisoners stand in a queue after they were released on parole at the Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad, March 30, 2020.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak began in India, concerns have been raised about the spread of the virus in prisons and efforts have been made to prevent them from becoming an epicentre of the pandemic.

However, over the past few months, cases have been reported from prisons across the country. Thiruvananthapuram central jail in Kerala is the latest to report a major outbreak with over 400 prisoners testing positive for Covid-19. After rapid antigen tests were conducted on Monday, the total number of Covid positive prisoners rose to 476.

A total of 960 prisoners are lodged in the central prison at Poojappura in Thiruvananthapuram, according to The New Indian Express. Its capacity is 727.

In Andhra Pradesh, a total of 928 prison inmates and 167 staff have tested positive across jails. “Out of the total of 928 inmates who tested positive, 825 are active cases and the rest have recovered. 167 prison staff have also tested positive,” Inspector General of Prisons, G Jayavardhan told The News Minute on Wednesday.

Over 1,000 prisoners have tested positive for the coronavirus in prisons across Maharashtra so far, according to the state prison department. Prisons in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, among others, have been hit by Covid-19.

To avoid such a situation, the Supreme Court in March had 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.

However, Madhurima Dhanuka, Programme Head of Prison Reforms Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, told HuffPost India in an email interview that the entire framework around decongestion was not properly worked out by the top court.

“The Supreme Court merely directed the formation of high-powered committees, who were to decide the categories of prisoners who are eligible to be considered for release. The actual releases for undertrial cases are required to be made by concerned courts — which means bail applications had to be filed and hearing had to be conducted — at a time when courts had also suspended work or restricted hearing to only urgent cases,” she said.

Dhanuka added that decongesting was not enough and the focus should also have been on the inmates still inside the prison and the staff. “Ensuring that proper precautionary measures are in place and are being adhered to is important.”

Edited excerpts:

1. In March, the Supreme Court had ordered states to decongest prisons in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic. But several prisons across the country remain overcrowded and have reported coronavirus outbreaks in recent days. Why do you think states have been unable to decongest sufficiently?

The Supreme Court merely directed the formation of high-powered committees, who were to decide the categories of prisoners who are eligible to be considered for release. The actual releases for undertrial cases are required to be made by concerned courts — which means bail applications had to be filed and hearing had to be conducted — at a time when courts had also suspended work or restricted hearing to only urgent cases. So clearly the entire framework around decongestion was not worked out properly by the Supreme Court. Also, it has not continued to monitor the process either, which meant that each HPC functioned differently, some more liberal than others and some quite secretive in their decision-making process.

2. Is decongesting enough to contain Covid-19 in prisons? What other steps should be taken to stem the spread?

Definitely decongestion is not enough because that only leads to release of some prisoners. It’s important to focus on those inmates who remain inside and the prison staff. Ensuring that proper precautionary measures are in place, and being adhered to is important. This can be done through regular internal and external monitoring of prisons by members of the Board of Visitors — which includes official (district judge, district magistrate, superintendent of police etc) and non-official visitors (other members of the society). In this situation where visits are not possible, remote inspections can be conducted and frequent reports sought.

3. Is there a shortage of medical staff in prisons? Have hygiene conditions improved in prisons in the wake of the pandemic?

Yes, there has always been a shortage of medical staff in prisons. It is highly unlikely that the hygiene conditions would have improved substantially during this time. There might be some increased focus but there are no reports of extra funds allocated by governments towards this.

4. A video conferencing facility was started only on June 22 for prisoners to get in touch with their legal aid lawyers after legal consultations were suspended on March 25. Does this violate prisoners’ rights?

Indeed, lack of ensuring alternative means for visitation in a situation where physical visits could not be allowed is a violation of rights. Access to your family and lawyers are basic human rights, which should not have been denied. Many states had immediately resorted to alternatives such as enabling contact over phones and this should have been taken up by all states uniformly. Even now when e-mulaqat is allowed, it’s not yet known if the information is being published on their website or outside prisons. It’s not just about a right, but restrictions on visits can potentially impact mental health of prisoners, and these can have long-term ramifications.

(Ed—The prisons authority told the Delhi High Court that a video conferencing facility was started from 22 June for all the prisoners to get in touch with the legal aid lawyers.)

5. With mulaqats suspended, prisons don’t seem to have transitioned to e-mulaqats. Reports last month said Tihar Jail is likely to start virtual visits by families. What should the authorities have done to ensure a system was in place for virtual meetings when the country went into a lockdown?

E-prisons already provided the option to link through video conferencing. This was being done for foreign nationals in West Bengal already. All states should have prioritised efforts in this direction in March/April itself.

6. What is the effect of this suspension of mulaqats on prisoners?

As explained earlier, mulaqats are very important to ensure that prisoners are connected with their families and are in touch. During these times, when the virus is spreading fast, prisoners and their families would be concerned about the safety of each other. The lack of communication makes it worse and leaves a prisoner with uncertainty, anxiety which affects the mental well being of a person. When the lockdown happened, many people tweeted about how they feel they are in a prison, but all of us in lockdown at least had internet or a phone to connect with our loved ones, play online games, or keep ourselves engaged. A prisoner has none of that and they often don’t even have a TV. Recreational activities are conducted by visiting NGOs, which have also been stopped and there are no educational activities either.

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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 indiasupport@huffpost.com.