New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday directed all states and Union Territories to set up high-level committees to determine the class of prisoners who could be released on parole for four to six weeks to avoid overcrowding in jails so as to safeguard against the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
The apex court said prisoners convicted of or charged with offences having jail term of up to seven years can be given parole to decongest jails.
A bench headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde said that the high-level committee will work in consultation with the State Legal Service Authority for the release of prisoners.
“We, therefore, direct that each state shall constitute a high-level committee comprising of home secretary and chairman, State Legal Service Authority to determine a class of prisoners, who can be released on parole for four to six weeks or on interim bail,” said the bench, also comprising Justices L. Nageswara Rao and Surya Kant.
The bench was hearing the issue, of which it had taken suo motu note last week, on the preparedness in the wake of coronavirus in overcrowded prisons.
The top court on March 16 had said that due to overcrowding it is difficult for jail inmates to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which has been declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation.
The top court had noted that if prompt measures are not taken, the situation might worsen in India.
The situation has already begun worsening in the country. As the West Bengal home department decided that no prison visits would be allowed until the spread of COVID-19 was brought under control, several incarcerated persons had become restless and this led to a violent situation inside the Dum Dum central correctional home in Kolkata. As the prisoners began to protest on March 21, the prison authorities resorted to force and this led to a violent clash between the two. Several prisoners and prison staff were severely injured in the attack.
Prisons in India are congested and the overcrowding has led to several health issues along with violation of human rights and dignity of the incarcerated person. The apex court while issuing the order expressed its concern over the overcrowding of prisons. Presently, there are 1,339 prisons in the country housing approximately 4,66,084 inmates.
At the end of December 2018 (the latest data released by the National Crime Record Bureau), the nationwide occupancy rate at Indian prisons stood at 117.6%. A total of 4,66,084 prisoners as on December 31, 2018 were confined in various jails across the country. Of them, as many as 1,04,011 were lodged only in the prisons of Uttar Pradesh, followed by 42,057 persons in Madhya Pradesh, 38,685 in Bihar and 35,884 in the prisons of Maharashtra.
UP has reported the highest overcrowding at 176.5% occupancy rate, followed by Sikkim 157.3%, Chhattisgarh with 153.3%, Uttarakhand at 150%, Maharashtra with 148.9%, Madhya Pradesh has 147% and Meghalaya with another 143.5%. Among Union Territories, Delhi has reported the highest overcrowding at 154.3%. To simplify this, take, for example, the occupancy rate of UP which is at an alarming 176.5%. This means the already limited space meant for 100 incarcerated persons in the jail has to be shared by 176.5 persons.
The SC bench said states and union territories could consider the release of prisoners who have been convicted or are undertrial for offences for which prescribed punishment is up to 7 years or less, with or without fine and the prisoner has been convicted for a lesser number of years than the maximum. While this will bring down the prison population, the criteria used here is arbitrary on more than one count. First, the undertrial prisoners are those who have not been convicted for the crimes they are accused of. With the spread of COVID-19, the functioning of courts has already got delayed and the backlog will only increase from here on. Those in the prison will have to languish for a longer duration before their cases even come up for hearing.
Second, the conditions of Indian prisons have never been conducive. In 2018 alone, 1845 persons died of several ailments in the jail. Most of these ailments were manageable and deaths could have been avoided if the prisoners were provided with timely medical care. Now with this extraordinary situation arising, and shortage of medical staff in the prions, prisoners will not have a scope to be taken out to the state or civic hospitals for treatment. Even with the reduced prison capacity, the prisons will not have the capacity to handle the situation if there were an outbreak of the disease.
The situation across the country has already become grim and most states are slowly resorting to lockdowns. Prisons have never been a priority of any state and the living conditions here continue to be compromised.
Along with the release, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a non-government human rights organisation has urged that the state government also ensures that the human rights of those languishing in the jail should be taken care of.
The organisation has urged the state governments to ensure telephone services are effectively made available to the prisoners in the absence of prison visits.
“Where Prisoner Inmate Calling Systems or phone facilities are available, prisoners must be allowed to call their families on a daily basis for 5-7 minutes each day/every alternate day/as frequently as they are allowed visitation (depending on the prison population and permissible limits). Until the ban on visitation is not lifted, all costs towards making calls must be borne by the prison department.
Prisons without a phone facility should set up an office land-line phone at the inside office/chakkar/deori to allow prisoners to speak with their family members, as frequently as they are allowed to meet them in person,” the organisation has suggested.
CHRI has also pointed out that this fear of contagion is not only true for India but for all countries across the world. As per numerous media reports, some prisoners across at least six countries namely England, United States of America, Iran, China, Italy, and France have tested positive for COVID-19. In a 21-page document, the organisation has issued several immediate measures that need to be taken to ensure hygienic living condition, awareness among prisoners, and availability of alternative spaces to house the prisoners.
“Conduct screening of all prisoners, as has been proposed by Maharashtra, to rule out the possibility of any infection and isolate those who exhibit symptoms of the virus,” the organisation has proposed. Several search and segregation measures have also been proposed by the organisation.
Note: This article was originally published on March 23, 2020 and updated with additional information on March 24, 2020.
(With PTI inputs)