Mumbai: As one of the first precautionary measures to prevent an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in prisons, the Supreme Court in March directed state governments to promptly decongest them. But in Maharashtra, instead of aiding the already sluggish process of decongestion, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court wants a COVID-19 patient to be taken into custody even when his treatment is underway. If he fails to surrender, the high court has also ordered strict penal action against the patient.
The patient, a 39-year-old life convict, was first released on 28-day furlough leave on March 1. However, days before his surrender, on March 22, Maharashtra went into a complete lockdown, making it difficult for the convicted person to return to the prison at the end of the leave. The prisoner, a Mumbai- resident, was lodged at the Nagpur central prison, serving a life sentence after he was convicted of murdering a city-based builder. On the completion of his furlough leave, the convicted person was to travel over 850 kilometres from Mumbai to Nagpur, which would not have been possible without the permission of the local administration.
The person says he made every effort to return to prison. “I first applied for an e- pass but the district administration denied it. I then even went to the nearby Taloja central prison and then the Thane central prison and asked them to take me into custody. They both said they were not admitting new prisoners and asked me to travel to Nagpur instead. I have since been writing emails and letters to the prison authority,” he told The Wire over phone from his house in Thane, where he is presently under quarantine.
While the prison’s authorities failed to reply to his constant follow ups, he managed to receive periodic extensions from the high court. The convict’s lawyer Aakash K. Sorde said that on June 16, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court asked his client to surrender. “My client also agreed since (at the time of the order) he had no idea about his health,” Sorde said. A day later, the person tested positive for COVID- 19.
An urgent application was moved before to appraise the court of the convict’s health status and he was granted another extension. Meanwhile, on June 28, a second test also returned positive, Sorde says. The Wire has accessed both the medical reports which confirm his status.
Even as the person continues to be a patient of the viral infection, on July 7, the division bench of justice Z.A. Haq and N.B. Suryawanshi ordered him to surrender. The division bench observed, “If there is any default on the part of the petitioner in surrendering at Central Prison, Nagpur till 18/07/2020, his absence from 19/07/2020 will be treated as unauthorized and penal action as per the Rules would be taken against him.”
Furlough leave is granted to a prisoner periodically, enabling them to retain familial and social ties. It is always meant to ease the ill-effects of prolonged incarceration. The period of furlough is treated as remission of sentence.
Little progress in decongesting jails
Sorde says the court completely disregarded the fact that the convicted person was ailing with an extremely infectious disease. Sending him to prison would not just jeopardise his health, but also other inmates and officers of the Nagpur central prison, the lawyer says.
The Nagpur central prison has the capacity to accommodate 1,810 prisoners, but as on June 30, it had 2,092 inmates. Among them, close to 140 persons were reported to have been infected by the virus and prison authorities have been struggling to contain the outbreak.
The state’s home department, following the Supreme Court order in March, had agreed to reduce the congestion of its prisons. It said prisons would run at 60% capacity to ensure that social distancing norms are followed and the jails are properly sanitised. Even three months after that order, the home department has been struggling to reduce the overcrowding. As on June 30, as many as 28,463 persons were incarcerated across 60 prisons and over 35 temporary quarantine centres across the state. The state’s home minister Anil Deshmukh, on several occasions, had said that he is making serious efforts to decongest prisons and had promised to reduce the prison population to 17,000.
The decongestion work, however, has been very slow. In many jails, prisoners and several prison staff have been infected in hundreds. Four persons have also died due to complications arising out of the viral infection. The Bombay high court recently disposed of a PIL seeking proper medical treatment, testing and a communication channel for incarcerated persons. It accepted assurances made by the state government and said random tests must be conducted on inmates as required.
The life convict, who is presently recuperating at his home in Thane district, says his health condition has been unstable over the past month and returning to jail would only worsen it. “I have spent close to 10 years in jail. I have made several complaints about the inadequate quality of healthcare in prisons. Who should be held responsible if my condition worsens or I end up spreading the infection?” he asks.