As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Activists, Lawyers Appeal for the Release of Prisoners in Delhi

According to estimates, 200 prisoners and several jail staff have already tested positive for COVID-19.

Mumbai: As the second wave of COVID-19 ravages Delhi, the situation of prisons in the city is dire with little to no scope to follow COVID-19 appropriate behaviour. In order to mitigate the situation, a group of senior human rights lawyers, activists and medical practitioners have written to the Supreme Court elected High Power Committee (HPC) in Delhi requesting the decongestion of prisons.

In a representation made by advocates Vrinda Grover and Soutik Banerjee, academic Pratiksha Baxi, and public health activist Sarojini Nadimpally, the HPC has been notified about the exponential rise in cases inside prisons of Delhi.

“To protect the right to life of the prisoners, there is an imminent need to adopt a health centred approach that addresses the present COVID-19 crisis,” the signatories of the letter have appealed.

The letter was written soon after over 200 prisoners and several jail staff were infected with the virus. On May 5, one female prisoner died of coronavirus; she is the sixth person to die in the pandemic in Delhi jails.

The letter points out that unlike the first wave in 2020, younger people are also being seriously impacted and succumbing to the virus in 2021.

Also read: COVID-19: PUDR Asks Delhi HC to Take Action on ‘Alarming’ Situation in City’s Prisons

“This necessitates that a valuation be carried out with an approach towards combating the pandemic in prisons by revisiting the criteria outlined by the HPC for prisoners to be released on interim bail and emergency parole from jails in Delhi,” the letter reads.

Last year in March, the Supreme Court had suo-motu ordered HPCs across every state to come up with their own criteria for the release of prisoners. Decongestion was the prime motto and the apex court had asked the HPC to formulate its own generous rules to ensure the prisons are able to maintain social distancing. Very few states followed the order seriously. In some states, like Maharashtra, where some initial work was done, the work of HPC fell off the mark as soon as the number of infections was brought under control.

Overcrowded prisons

Delhi has three prison complexes, of them Tihar has nine prisons, another one is in Rohini, and Mandoli prison complex has another six jails. These jails have a total capacity of 10,026 prisoners. But according to several news reports, over 20,000 prisoners have been crammed into space, leading to a very dangerous situation.

Delhi has always remained one of the most crowded prison spaces. Even in the pre-coronavirus period, Delhi prisons had occupancy of around 174.9 %, according to the data of the National Crime Records Bureau, 2019. The situation now has only got worse.

“The numbers are significantly double than the original capacity,” the letter points out. And if the prison population is to be brought down to 50% (5000 prisoners) over 15,000 to 16,000 prisoners will have to be released immediately.

“The criteria set out for purposes of awarding interim bail and emergency parole must be premised on and take into consideration the overall holding capacity of prisons, health-related vulnerabilities, comorbidities, disabilities including physical disability and mental illness or mental health concerns, belonging to marginalised social groups, special physiological needs of women, and age-related ailments,” the letter states.

Given the lethal nature of the pandemic, and the unrelenting and pervasive toll that it is taking on human life and health, the legal and medical experts’ group has argued that “the adoption of such criteria to decongest the prisons would be in conformity with the letter and spirit of the guarantee to right life under Article 21 of the Indian constitution and should guide the HPC”.

Women prisoners

The letter focuses on the condition of women in Delhi prisons. Prison no. 6 in Tihar, which is meant for women and has a capacity of 400 prisoners, had over 440 women prisoners jailed currently. Among them at least 40 have tested positive, and one dead.

“The spread of COVID-19 is largely aggravated by structural and systemic issues in the prison including hygiene, cleanliness, social distancing and exposure to common surfaces,” the letter states. It further adds that just because women are lodged in some prisons, it doesn’t mean that special considerations are made to accommodate them.

Dr. Pratiksha Baxi, one of the signatories of the letter, has argued in one of the academic papers, ‘Gendering the Pandemic in the Prison’, that: “Women inmates in male-defined prisons governed by male rules of incarceration experience specific forms of discrimination, deprivation and violence.”

The shared sanitation and hygienic facilities in women’s prisons, especially washrooms with inadequate facilities to manage menstrual needs poses a greater risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus in female-only prisons,” the domain experts have stated in the letter.