New Delhi: The People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) has written to the chief justice of the Delhi high court, Justice D.N. Patel, about the “alarming” situation in Delhi’s prisons as COVID-19 spreads rapidly.
Despite the Supreme Court’s notice early on in the pandemic to reduce overcrowding in jails, PUDR has said in its open letter, those who had been released on parole had been asked to return to prison before the deadly second wave. As The Wire has reported, over 500 cases of COVID-19 have been reported from Delhi’s three prisons over the last year, including two deaths.
“In view of these circumstances [referring to the overburdened health infrastructure in Delhi], explosion of the infection within Delhi prisons may be an effective death sentence. PUDR is anxious about the life of inmates especially in view of restrictions on court hearings, physical production of inmates and mulaqats. As these prisoners, convicts and a larger population of undertrials, are in the custody of the State, it is the duty of the State to guarantee their right to life and health,” the letter says.
The PUDR has asked the Delhi high court to consider certain urgent actions to try and stem the spread of the virus within prisons including releasing vulnerable populations, increasing the capacity in hospital wards inside prisons and initiating prison-wide testing drives.
Read the full open letter below.
Hon’ble Mr Chief Justice
Delhi High Court
This is to bring to your notice the alarming situation inside Delhi prisons in view of the virulent new wave of COVID. As reported in the Indian Express dt. 15 April 2021, there are presently 67 active cases of COVID among jail inmates and 11 among jail staff, including a jail superintendent and two prison doctors. Overall, around 200 prisoners and 300 staff members had tested positive in Delhi jails. There has been little reporting of status of health of inmates over the past one week.
Prison inmates and staff are particularly vulnerable to COVID on account of deplorable medical facilities and overcrowding. The Supreme Court and Delhi High Court had recognized this fact, and with the constitution of a High-Powered Committee, 5124 prisoners had been released on interim bail, parole and on account of remission. Following orders of the same High Powered Committee dt. 17 February 2021 directing the return of these prisoners, a large number of prisoners had returned to Tihar and Mandoli jails by early-March. As a result, the prison population has touched more than 20,000, double its capacity. Presently, there is no definite data on the number of prisoners who are particularly vulnerable to the virus on account of their age, comorbidities and other factors.
We also bring to your attention the crumbling medical infrastructure in the city, which is struggling to provide adequate and affordable treatment. There is dire shortage of hospital beds, ICU facilities, oxygen, plasma and essential drugs, even though “frontline workers” are overstretched in providing care. The status of health infrastructure within prisons is in an even more deplorable condition. This is indicative from the fact that even after measures were taken last year, 293 prison staff and 120 inmates had contracted the infection, with 2 deaths till February 2021.
In view of these circumstances, explosion of the infection within Delhi prisons may be an effective death sentence. PUDR is anxious about the life of inmates especially in view of restrictions on court hearings, physical production of inmates and mulaqats. As these prisoners, convicts and a larger population of undertrials, are in the custody of the State, it is the duty of the State to guarantee their right to life and health. Therefore, we urge you to kindly consider issuing appropriate directions to the state government, prison authorities and others to uphold the right to health of prisoners, including the following:
- Initiate prison-wide testing drives, of inmates and staff, to assess the extent of the spread of the contagion. This information should be made publicly accessible. Guidelines may be issued to ensure continuous monitoring by providing rapid test kits.
- Increase the capacity of hospital wards inside prisons by providing more beds, necessary medical equipment, paramedical staff and ambulances. All prison inmates and staff, including medical staff, should be supplied with masks, gloves, PPE kits etc. to prevent further spread of the virus.
- Immediate release of all vulnerable prisoners, irrespective of the nature of their offence or sentence, who are able to return to their families on interim bail/parole.
- Vulnerable prisoners include women and children, all prisoners above the age of 50 years, and those with co-morbidities or disabilities.
- Those unable to furnish sureties should be released on personal bonds.
- Authorities should ensure safe passage to those released.
- Further ensure that other due process rights of prisoners are not suspended. These include the right to be produced before Magistrates through appropriate means, right to apply for bail and other legal remedies, right to e-mulaqats with families, caretakers, lawyers etc.
Radhika Chitkara, Vikas Kumar