Another COVID-19 Outbreak in Byculla Prison Highlights Lessons That Haven't Been Learnt

Rights activists Shoma Sen and Sudha Bharadwaj are lodged in this prison.

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Mumbai: On September 17, a local health post in Mumbai’s E ward was notified about a sudden increase in “fever” cases inside Byculla women’s prison. The cause of the fever was unknown, but the prison authorities had seen this pattern many times in the past year. The ward authorities set up a fever camp two days later, on September 19. The initial figures suggested three women were down with COVID-19. In subsequent camps, another 36 people – including six children under the age of six – tested positive. The jail, with close to 300 women prisoners, was soon sealed.

Out of the 60 central and district jails in the state, Byculla is the only dedicated one for women and their children. Prisoners from Mumbai and adjacent districts are all lodged here. The prison’s actual capacity is 200 persons. But it is invariably overcrowded. In the past year and a half, both the Supreme Court and Bombay high court have passed several orders making serious interventions in the prisoners’ interest; the state, however, has done very little to reduce the prison population. This means that every few months, there is a spike in the number of cases of COVID-19 and the situation becomes unmanageable.

Until a few months ago, the courts recognised the pandemic as a ground for bail. But since there has been a substantial decrease in the overall number of cases in the state, it no more remains a convincing ground. Sixty-one-year-old retired professor Shoma Sen – who was arrested in connection with the Elgar Parishad case in June 2018 and has since been languishing in jail – moved her bail application on the ground that her age and comorbidities make her susceptible to COVID-19 infection. The special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court rejected her application, stating, “COVID-19 cannot be used as a ground for a release anymore.”

Watch: Why It’s So Important to Decongest Madhya Pradesh’s Prisons

Within days, two women prisoners, housed in the same barrack as Sen and her co-accused Sudha Bharadwaj, tested positive. Bharadwaj, a lawyer and academic, has had several health complications since her arrest in late 2018. Her daughter Maaysha Singh, and her friends, have issued a statement expressing their concern. In the statement, they have urged the high-power committee constituted to decongest prisons in the state to look into the outbreak seriously and take necessary measures.

“We urge all concerned to take necessary precaution to all senior and political prisoners of Bhima Koregaon (Elgar Parishad) to avert anything untoward. They have spent two-thirds of their lives working and contributing towards better living conditions for the marginalised, including ensuring justice to them within the constitutional framework. Their precious life must be safeguarded within the constitutional guarantee of the right to life under Article 21,” the statement reads.

Out of the 16 persons arrested in connection with the Elgar Parishad case, seven have been infected with the deadly virus in the past year and a half. The oldest of them, 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy, passed away a few months ago. His death could have been averted if he was provided medical treatment on time. Swamy, like most of those incarcerated, had approached the court to get proper medical treatment.

Soon after the second wave of the pandemic, the Bombay high court had suo motu decided to look into the condition of prisons in the state. Senior lawyer Mihir Desai was appointed as an amicus curie. The state had then made several claims before the court, listing out measures taken to contain the outbreak. Among them were the quarantine centres set up inside and outside the prison premises.

Schools run by district administrations have been taken over across the state to accommodate prisoners infected by COVID-19. In the case of Byculla prisons, Patanwala municipal school a few km away in Mazgaon currently houses the women and their children. This space, although taken over as a “COVID care centre” by the prison authorities, is not designed to accommodate adults.

Among those infected is a young mother of two, Surekha*. She was moved soon after her RT-PCR test results came positive. Surekha’s lawyer told The Wire that women have been huddled into a small confined space and are being treated like criminals even when seriously unwell. “You need a clean, hygienic space with enough sunlight and air. The women have been struggling for space and peace inside,” the lawyer said. Surekha is double vaccinated, like most others in the prison.

Also read: Kashmir: Elderly, Ailing People Detained Under Public Safety Act Don’t Get Proper Medical Care

After the Bombay high court rapped the state prison authorities for neglecting the prisoners’ health, several vaccination camps were set up in prison. Some prisoners were even taken out to nearby camps. Prison officials claim over 50% of prisoners have got at least one of the two doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

Last year, soon after the first wave, Desai had moved a petition seeking implementation of the Supreme Court’s detailed order which directed states to come up with their own comprehensive plans to bring down the prison population to about 50% of its actual capacity. Maharashtra, at that time, had over 37,000 prisoners stuffed in the space meant to accommodate 24,722 prisoners.

The then Maharashtra home minister, Anil Deshmukh, had acted on the order and over 10,000 prisoners were released on parole and temporary bail. This number, although high, did not help in bringing the over-congestion problem under control. If 10,000 prisoners were released, another 15,000 were arrested during the same period. The new arrests were made for not complying with the restrictions imposed during the lockdown in the state.

A year and a half later, the Maharashtra prisons statistics (for the month of August 2021) still have 34,564 prisoners across 60 prisons.

Prisons are one of the most inaccessible space under the state administration. Since the viral outbreak last year, prison visits were shut down completely. To date, the visits are erratic and those incarcerated have to rely on the phone call system set up by the administration. This system is not yet functional in most quarantine centres.

Desai points to several Supreme Court and high court judgements to talk of the absolute opacity of the prison system. “Those outside are to only imagine what happens inside prison. We have no access to the inside space. And most states have refused to set up a proper monitoring mechanism,” Desai observes. He further says that this has also been noted in different judgements from time to time. The Board of Visitors, constituted in accordance with the prison rule and mandated to make prison visits periodically, has been defunct for many months. The high-power committee constituted by the state for the sole purpose to decongest the space too has failed to meet on a regular basis.