Mumbai: In the last two months, Shweta Salve*, a 42-year-old undertrial prisoner, fell ill three times.
Twice, because of a stomach infection – a severe yet common illness that most prisoners learn to live with – and then fever, which then led to a COVID-19 positive report. Each time she complained of ill health, her lawyer had to move court to ensure she could access medical treatment outside the Byculla women prisons.
After routine check-ups at the state-run JJ Hospital, Salve was sent back every time. But after each visit, instead of her usual barrack, she would be sent to a separate facility within the Byculla prisons premises which has now been made into a quarantine centre.
This separate, highly congested barrack, houses everyone stepping out of the prison premises, irrespective of their health conditions. Salve’s lawyer claims that it was here that Salve was infected.
“It is a complete mess. Salve tells me the space is overcrowded and it is practically impossible to maintain physical distance in this barrack. There were several co-prisoners who had fever and throat infection but were not tested. Eventually, Salve fell sick too,” the lawyer, who did not want to be identified, told The Wire.
Once Salve was down with a sore throat and fever, was tested for COVID-19 (on her lawyer’s insistence), she was moved to a separate quarantine facility set up inside a school, a little way from Byculla prison. Salve was one of the 40 women prisoners to have tested positive at Byculla prison in April.
‘Several adults in a room made for children’
This quarantine centre is little more than a small room inside the school, accommodating 30-35 women prisoners who have tested COVID-19 positive. The room is crammed and with very little space to relax. Designed for school children, the room is unfit for stay, both prisoners and lawyers complain.
Mihir Desai, a senior counsel, who is also an amicus curiae in the ongoing suo motu petition before the Bombay high court for decongestion of over 60 prisons of Maharashtra says that most of these quarantine facilities set up in schools have inadequate toilet facilities. “Most of them are municipal schools with just one or two toilets at best. Before the pandemic, these toilets were used by young school children who spent just a few hours in school. And now you have several adults, who have to use it through the day,” says Desai.
It is not just the Byculla prisons. Early last month, the state prison authority had informed the Bombay high court that 44 different quarantine facilities have been set up across the state. This is at least eight more than what was set up last year soon after the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike last year, most facilities this year were arranged within the prison premises.
At these centres, every prisoner who has to travel outside for reasons including health, is kept separately for around seven days. This segregation, in principle, might be a scientific option but it is not well thought out. The unliveable condition inside these quarantine centres has pushed prisoners away from accessing health facilities outside the jail.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak last year, as many as 44 prisons have reported infections. According to jail officials, a total of 4,049 prisoners have been infected since March last year. Of them, 3,864 have already recovered, 13 have died and there are at least 172 active cases across different prisons.
‘Quarantine centres more congested than usual quarters’
Several prisoners who have been sent to quarantine facilities have complained that only a small barrack – usually the most ignored and ill-equipped part of the prison – has been converted into a quarantine centre. These barracks, they complain, are more congested than the usual barracks.
“In barracks where you have four toilets, only two work. There is no adequate running water in most centres,” says lawyer Payoshi Roy, who has been in constant touch with her clients in Mumbai’s various prisons. At least three of her clients – one of whom has cancer – have ended up in such a “quarantine facility” in the past few months.
In Maharashtra, Roy says all that the prison department has focused on is bringing overcapacity down to stipulated capacity. “But these efforts mean nothing in this pandemic. To ensure some kind of physical distance in jails, the total number of prisoners should have been reduced to at least two-thirds of the total capacity,” Roy notes. But the prisons in the state have over 34,000 prisoners, close to 10,000 more than capacity.
Until last week, only 1,102 Maharashtra prison inmates, including 1,007 undertrials and 95 convicts, had been released on interim bail and emergency parole. This decongestion drive was taken up following the recommendation made by the High Power Committee set up last year primarily to decongest the jails.
Last month, when Hany Babu, a 54-year-old Delhi University associate professor and one of the 16 accused in the Elgar Parishad case of 2018, fell sick, one of the immediate demands voiced by his lawyer was access to clean, running water. He had a severe bacterial infection in his left eye and at the Taloja central prison where he was lodged, clean tap water was not available. His family, in a press note, mentioned that Babu’s eye condition had further deteriorated because of the soiled water he was forced to wash his eye with.
At some quarantine centres, prisoners attempted to take things in their own hands.
Jyoti Jagtap, an artist with the cultural troupe Kabir Kala Manch, and arrested for her alleged role in the Elgar Parishad case, started pranayama classes at the quarantine centre set up opposite Arthur Road central prisons.
“She was at the centre for close to a month. It was a difficult time but we (her legal team) wanted her to do her best to survive in that space. Since she knew a few yoga movements, especially the breathing exercises, we encouraged her to practice and help others at the quarantine centre too,” says her lawyer, Susan Abraham. A suggestion to provide eggs to ailing prisoners was also made, Abraham adds.
Communication gap and staff
Besides the congestion and unhygienic living conditions, another problem that prisoners, their family members and lawyers have constantly complained about is the lack of proper communication channels at these quarantine centres.
Advocate Desai has, in fact, raised this issue several times in the high court. There is a court order directing prison authorities to ensure similar facilities like those in prisons are made available at these temporary quarantine centres too, Desai says. “But that isn’t the case in most centres,” he points out.
“Most times, lawyers and families are not even informed where a prisoner is lodged. And in most centres, there are no proper telephone services established. This problem happened last year and it still persists,” Desai adds.
Prisons – besides being overcrowded, also lack adequate staff – particularly medical staff. In some prisons, instead of the required allopathic doctors, Ayurvedic doctors have been appointed. These doctors have been, from time to time, accused of administering medicines they are not qualified to give. In some jails, there is just no medical care available at all. Prisoners in Kalyan and Jalgaon district jails have complained of receiving only “iron tablets” for any kind of illness.
Since the jails do not have enough staff to spare, the government has deputed Zilla Parishad and municipal corporation employees to handle the quarantine centres. “They are barely equipped to handle a prison system. Not all of them are healthcare workers. The state has not made doctors or appropriate health workers available in most quarantine centres,” Desai added.
*Name changed to protect identity