Mumbai: At least three incarcerated persons have died of COVID-19 in three prisons of Maharashtra.
In an affidavit submitted to the Bombay high court, the state government said that a prisoner each has died in the central prisons of Taloja and Yerwada, and in Dhule district prison. Maharashtra is the first state to have reported deaths in prisons so far.
In an elaborate response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), and human rights lawyers Archana Rupwate and Afreen Khan, the Maharashtra government said that, “In Yerwada, Taloja and Dhule Prison, death of a prisoner took place in each prison.”
The response says that the prisoners tested positive for COVID-19 after their deaths. “Three more inmates are found positive in Dhule District Prison. They are taking medical treatment as per protocol,” the affidavit states.
In the petition, PUCL has raised serious concerns over the deteriorating health conditions of incarcerated persons and the laxity shown by the state government in making timely arrangements to release prisoners on temporary bail and parole. The petition, filed by advocate Isha Khandelwal and Kritika Agarwal of PUCL and Archana Rupwate and Afreen Khan, also claimed that the prisoners’ families have been kept in the dark about their health conditions. Senior counsel Mihir Desai is representing the two organisations in court.
Deaths in prison have been recorded after over 158 incarcerated persons tested positive in Mumbai’s Arthur Road prisons, and one in Byculla women’s prison and another ten in Satara prison. Around 26 prison staff have also tested positive at Arthur Road jail.
While the deaths in Yerwada and Taloja central prison were recorded on May 9, the prisoner in Dhule prison died on May 15.
Prison superintendents across the state have also individually submitted a report of measures taken at their respective prisons. While most prisons claim to have provided masks, soaps and hand sanitisers to the incarcerated persons, in some prisons, officials claim to be providing “turmeric milk to boost immunity”, along with homeopathy medicines and cow dung smoke.
Most tests were conducted between May 7 and 12. Prison officials have claimed that they are only testing symptomatic patients. So, there is no way to ascertain how many more have been infected.
The decision to decongest prisons was taken following the Supreme Court’s order in a suo motu petition. The court had directed every state to set up a high-power committee and it was the committee’s discretion to come up with a formula to release prisoners. The Maharashtra state government had, in the beginning, decided to release only prisoners who were booked for crime punishable for less than seven years. Special laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act 2012 were left out of the initial decision.
However, as cases began to spike, the high-power committee reworked its decision and came up with clauses which involved other crimes too and those above the age of 60 and with severe health complications. On May 12, finally, a decision to release over 17,000 (out of the total 35,239) prisoners was taken.
Prisons in Maharashtra are among the most crowded in the country. Even when it was overcrowded, the state home department did very little to decongest the prisons. The initial decision to release 11,000 prisoners was not acted upon on time and it was only after several persons tested positive that home minister Anil Deshmukh decided to expedite the process.
The prison department has also acquired several empty structures like schools and government buildings to build temporary jails. Most infected persons have been moved out to the temporary structures, the state government’s affidavit claimed.
Among the various issues that the state has now presented before the Bombay high court, vacancies in the prisons’ health department is a serious one that has been included. The prisons department has a sanctioned position for 175 staff. Of them, around 63 posts are lying vacant.
With nearly 150% overcrowding (as per the National Crime Records Bureau data of 2018), these sanctioned posts are grossly inadequate. To make matters worse, important posts like medical officers, nurses, and lab technicians are lying vacant.