Mumbai: Conditions at the Arthur Road Central Prison in Mumbai have worsened, with 81 more prisoners testing positive for COVID-19. On May 9, as many as 77 prisoners and 26 staff members had tested positive. With the fresh cases of infection, the total number has risen to 185 (including jail staff). The numbers, officials had warned, are expected to rise dramatically in the coming days.
According to jail officials, quarantine facilities have been arranged inside the prison to accommodate those infected.
The first round of infection came to light after an undertrial prisoner, a 45-year-old man, had suffered a paralysis attack in the prison on May 2 and was rushed to JJ Hospital for treatment.
The state home minister, Anil Deshmukh, had announced that all those who tested positive would be moved to GT Hospital & St George Hospital in guarded vehicles on May 8 morning. Members of the jail staff will be shifted out separately.
However, the infected prisoners were moved to quarantine centres set up at Mahul, one of the most polluted parts of Mumbai. As the local residents opposed the move, the state government had to retreat and make special arrangements inside the prison.
A jail official claimed that the prisoners were moved back due to security concerns. “Due to law and order issues and several other civic, medical and logistical issues related to the quarantine facility at Mahul, we have set up a special COVID-19 quarantine ward at circle no. 3 and circle no. 10 at Arthur Road jail,” an official confirmed. He further added that a medical team of seven doctors and paramedics from JJ hospital visited the quarantine ward. “They will be visiting on a daily basis,” he said.
Although Arthur Road Central Prison, like most other prisons in the state, had been under a complete lockdown, members of allied staff have been moving in and out of the prison. Prison authorities have said that essential services like milk, vegetables and groceries come in every day and it is difficult to keep the space completely under a lockdown. “We also have sanitation workers visiting the prison on a regular basis. Even though the staff has not left the jail compound in over a month, it is difficult to keep the space completely locked,” a jail official shared.
Several undertrial prisoners have moved contempt petitions in the Supreme Court against the Maharashtra state government for not doing enough to decongest the prison space.
In all, Maharashtra has 60 prisons with a capacity of 24,032 prisoners. At the end of March this year, over 36,000 people were lodged in prisons across the state. Among them, Arthur Road Central Prison remains one of the most crowded, with close to 2,800 prisoners, even when the prison capacity is only 804 people.
So far, cases have been reported from Arthur Road central prison, Byculla women’s prisons and Satara district prison. Most prison officials have already written to their respective district magistrates claiming that the situation would go out of hand if immediate measures are not taken.
The state government, on oath, had told the Supreme Court that around 11,000 prisoners will be released on parole and emergency bail. The apex court, in its March 16 order, had left this decision on a high-power committee set up on a state level to decide on criteria for prisoners’ release. Over a month and a half later, fewer than 7,000 people have been released.
Among them close to 1,300 prisoners have been released from Mumbai and Thane prisons.
Mumbai District Legal Service Authority Yatin Game claimed that the high-power committee had sent several recommendations, but most have been rejected by the magistrate courts. Also, the home department has not decided on the fate of the convict prisoners so far, Game said.