Coronavirus Fears Spark Riots in Dum Dum Central Jail, Prisoners Demand Release on Bail

Prisoners pelted stones and set jail property on fire over the state government's decision not to allow them to meet their families until March 31.

Kolkata: In an unusual turn of events, clashes broke out in the Dum Dum Central Jail in the northern fringes of Kolkata on Saturday afternoon possibly over the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

A jail official on condition of anonymity told The Wire that prisoners “suddenly attacked” jail officials with bricks, ransacked furniture and set fire in some places. “We then called the higher authority for deployment of extra force,” the official said.

Some inmates are feared dead and over a dozen were severely injured in the police firing. With unconfirmed numbers doing the rounds, The Wire is yet to get a confirmation.

Bodies of the deceased were taken out in an ambulances with windows covered in dark strips of fabric. The government officials present at the spot refused to speak on the number of casualties.

The Bengal CID took over the case late on Saturday.

Ujjwal Biswas, the correctional home minister of West Bengal, said that family members are not being allowed inside the prisons as a precautionary measure in the light of the coronavirus pandemic. “The inmates want that they should be released and have resorted to violence. We are looking into the matter,” he said.

Over 400 police personnel from the Barrackpore Police Commissionerate were present at the spot. Furthermore, about 150-odd personnel from the Rapid Action Force (RAF) were here to control the situation. More than 15 engines from the West Bengal fire Services were called upon to control the fire.

Sources in the Dum Dum police said, “Clash broke between 12-1 pm. Prisoners turned really violent and started throwing stones and bricks. They went on a rampage and broke furniture and even set some on fire. Some even tried to escape but no one succeeded. Deployment of police and RAF at the right moment contained the issue.”

Minister Sujit Bose said that the fire has been doused and things are under control. When he was asked what what sparked the outrage among the inmates, he said, “There were some issues, but they turned violent. Started pelting stones and set properties on fire.”

When asked if it was anyhow related to the recent coronavirus outbreak, he said, “I don’t think so.”

Thick layers of smoke were spiralling out from the prison gate. Five inmates have been feared to be dead during the shootout, but official confirmation is awaited.

An injured person. Photo: Himadri Ghosh

Local Swapan Saha, who has tea stall near the prison’s maid gate said, “At around 12:30 pm we saw a cloud of smoke billowing out of the jail. Soon, we saw huge number of police started coming in. We even heard sounds of firing and police has cordoned off the entire area.”

The jail official further told The Wire that the inmates had also demanded masks and sanitisers fearing the outbreak of COVID-19. “They were anguished that lot them are staying together in a confined prison cell and hence might fall sick.”

According to news agency PTI, some inmates on Saturday morning insisted to be released on parole. When the authorities refused to accept their demand, they launched a violent agitation, a top prison official said.

A senior official of the West Bengal Correctional Services Department had said on Friday that allowing inmates’ families to wait outside the prison was against the concept of social distancing, which is the key to prevent the spread of coronavirus. “Keeping this in mind, a decision was taken not to allow the meetings till March 31,” he said.

In view of the coronavirus outbreak, a family member of an inmate can now only call up the prison authorities to enquire about his or her health.

According to Hindustan Times, a senior police officer said that tear gas shells had been fired to bring the situation under control. “Some persons were seriously injured in the clash,” the officer said.

Iran has temporarily freed 85,000 prisoners, including political prisoners, in an attempt to reduce pressure on its prisons system as the country struggles to contain the spread of coronavirus, Al Jazeera reported.

Similar instances were seen in the US, where inmates involved in minor crimes and those most vulnerable to infection due to underlying health problems from New York, Los Angeles and Cleveland were freed.