Mumbai: The Bombay high court on Tuesday directed the Maharashtra government to ensure that accused persons arrested by the police henceforth were tested for COVID-19 and sent to judicial custody only if their result came negative.
A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice G.S. Kulkarni also directed that all arrested accused persons above 45 years of age must be compulsorily vaccinated against coronavirus before being sent to prisons.
The bench said these steps were necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection in prisons across the state.
Last week, the HC took suo moto cognisance of newspaper reports on the rising instances of COVID-19 among inmates and staff in the 47 prisons across Maharashtra.
The court converted the issue into a public interest litigation (PIL) and sought the state government’s response on the same.
On Tuesday, advocate general (AG) Ashutosh Kumbhakoni, who appeared for the state government, told the HC that till April 18 this year, 188 prison inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 across Maharashtra.
He said that while the total capacity of prisons across Maharashtra was to house 23,127 inmates, 35,124 inmates were currently lodged in the 47 jails across the state.
This led the court to issue a slew of directions, including COVID-19 tests on arrested accused persons and vaccination of those above the age of 45.
The HC said it needed to intervene to “pave the way for saving the lives of the inmates of correctional homes and instill in them a sense of confidence that the State, of which the judiciary was a part, was also concerned about their well-being.”
“We also direct that any accused in excess of 45 years of age, upon arrest, shall be sent for vaccination to the nearest vaccination centre without fail,” the bench said.
The HC permitted the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) and its counsel, senior advocate Mihir Desai, to be impleaded as parties in the PIL to assist the court.
The PUCL had filed a PIL last year on the spread of COVID-19 among prison inmates and staff.
Another bench of the HC had at the time issued a set of guidelines and standard operating procedure to be followed in prisons.
On Tuesday, AG Kumbhakoni told the HC that the vaccination programme for eligible prisoners and staff was already underway.
He said those inmates who had been released on bail or emergency parole last year owing to the pandemic were still out.
Kumbhakoni said the state government was going to start releasing eligible inmates on emergency parole again soon.
The HC, therefore, directed the state authorities to decide upon all emergency parole applications immediately, “without wasting any time.”
Kumbhakoni further told the court that last year, the state had constructed 36 temporary prisons in educational institutes to decongest the existing jails.
They were given back when the coronavirus situation improved but it was now reclaiming these temporary prisons.
Fourteen such temporary prisons had been reclaimed, he said.
The AG said the state has decided that no new inmate will be admitted to prison without COVID-19 test.
The HC also directed the state to inform the court if there had been a drop in the crime rate since April 14, when stricter guidelines to contain the spread of COVID-19 came into force in Maharashtra.
The HC will hear the matter further on Thursday.