Coronavirus Outbreak: With 61,621 inmates over 50 years lodged in 1,399 prisons, huge challenge for India to insulate jails from pandemic
The court should also proactively provide bail to undertrials unless it is necessary to send the person to judicial custody.
As COVID-19 pandemic worsens, the prisons can possibly become an epicentre of the viral outbreak. The high rate of ingress and egress, closed spaces, sub-par medical care and overcrowding make prisons immensely vulnerable.
The lockdown of prison and the fear of the COVID-19 outbreak has led to prison break and riots in Dum Dum Central Jail, Kolkata resulting in one death. Earlier, similar instances have been reported in Brazil, Italy and Columbia. With the cases of infection rising across the country, the preparedness of 1,339 prisons in India is a pressing concern.
On 23 March, the Supreme Court in a suo moto writ petition, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, restricted the physical presence of all undertrial prisoners before the courts and transfer of prisoners. The court further ordered for development of readiness and response plans for prisons and establishment of a High Powered Committee in each of the states/ Union Territories for release of the inmates.
In the present situation, protecting the right to health of every individual, including prisoners is the utmost priority of the government. The proactive intervention in this direction from the Supreme Court must be applauded. However, the current preparations by the state government and prison authorities seem insufficient to confront the COVID-19 pandemic.
Framework to deal with disasters
Model Prison Manual, 2016, provides for extensive guidelines for prisons to act during epidemic situations. The guidelines include permanent segregation sheds for every prisoner, the infected prisoner to be detained in a separate building and treatment of patients' clothing and infected barracks.
Further, Guidelines on Management of Biological Disaster by National Disaster Management Authority requires the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to prepare a plan for the management of pandemics and calls for pandemic preparedness of every sector, which includes prisons.
However, the nature of coronavirus pandemic makes the above guidelines wholly insufficient. For instance, there are now confirmed reports of infected people without symptoms driving the spread of COVID-19 . It is difficult to imagine how an overcrowded Indian prison will be able to put into practice any form of social distancing.
Therefore, the need of the hour is for the states and the judiciary to put their heads together and adopt unconventional measures to protect not only the inmates but also every other human being who interacts with the prison system on a daily basis.
Measures taken so far
Everyday prisons experience a high influx of visitors, including lawyers, medical officials, visitors, correctional staff, etc. which increases chances of infection even if inmates themselves may be under a complete lockdown. As a measure to check the spread of the virus, states such as Delhi and Odisha have restricted visitors and have made arrangements for visits through video conferencing.
Further, steps were taken for the creation of isolation wards, a preliminary examination of inmates, the supply of masks and sanitisation and cleanliness of prison campus and wards. Moreover, Rajasthan and Jharkhand have taken steps to transfer the inmates from congested prisons to other prison facilities to ease overcrowding.
While the above measures are a good starting point, a lot more needs to be done on a priority basis to effectively curtail this pandemic.
What else can be done?
Along with restriction on visitors, additional measures are required to protect staff from contracting the infection. The understaffed prison authorities cannot afford rotational leave for the staff; hence, additional care and sanitisation should be adopted in the prison facility. All the prison staff should be provided with gloves, masks and gowns.
Individual health screening
The health screening of inmates should not be dependent solely on temperature screening and other symptoms should also be examined. Temporary isolation of any and every new inmate followed by observation of visual signs of respiratory illness and questions on the history of contact with a potential COVID-19 patient should be mandated in every prison.
As a measure to control the COVID-19 outbreak, Iran has temporarily released 85,000 prisoners. Adopting similar measures, the Supreme Court has ordered the establishment of a High Powered Committee to decide on the release of prisoners on parole or an interim bail. However, the selection of inmates to be released on parole should not be made merely on the basis of severity of offences or number of years sentenced.
As per Prison Statistics 2018, as on 31 December 2018, there were 61,621 inmates who were above 50 years in prisons across the country. This demographic is most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. To prevent deaths, interim bail should be provided to every prisoner above 50 years and those with medical conditions.
Decongestion of prisons
Overcrowded prison increases the chances of a rapid spread of infection among the inmates. Transfer of inmates to other prison facilities might be effective in states with lower occupancy in prisons but increases the possibility of infection in the process of transfer.
States with high occupancy in the prisons, like Uttar Pradesh (176.5 percent), Sikkim (157.3 percent), Delhi (154.3 percent) and others, places near the prison facilities should be identified for temporary prison facilities to ease overcrowding.
The option of the temporary release of prisoners should be explored. The court should also proactively provide bail to undertrials unless it is necessary to send the person to judicial custody.
COVID-19 pandemic requires urgent measures to be taken. Traditional measures adopted during floods and other natural disasters, like shifting inmates to other prison facilities are ineffective as well as dangerous in such a pandemic situation. In addition to the guidelines under the Model Prison Manual and the orders of the Supreme Court, it’s essential for the states to take proactive steps to avoid situations of prison riots and deaths while we still can.
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