Maharashtra's Prisons Are Feeling the Brunt of a Crisis That Could Have Been Averted

Despite several directions from the Supreme Court and high court to decongest its overcrowded prisons in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state government has neglected the issue.

Mumbai: On April 16, a Nagpur jail official made a hurried call to Madhubani district in Bihar, to inform 52-year-old Kamal Ansari’s family of his deteriorating health condition. Breaking down on the call, Ansari’s wife told the prison doctor, “Bacha lo unhe, unke chote chote bache hai (Please save him, he has young kids)”.

Ansari, a convicted prisoner on death row, had been hospitalised on April 9 after he showed signs of pneumonia. His condition had rapidly worsened and he soon had to be put on ventilator support. The family, however, was informed about Ansari’s health only seven days after he was hospitalised. He died on April 19.

Ansari had been in jail since 2006. He was arrested and later convicted for involvement in the serial train blasts that took off in Mumbai on July 11, 2006. The case has since been embroiled in several twists and turns and loopholes have been pointed in the police investigations from time to time. Even after the conviction, Ansari and others have maintained they have been wrongly implicated in the case.

We do not know if Ansari’s death could have been prevented. As a convict on death row, he could not have availed any benefits – parole or emergency bail as prescribed by the guideline issued by the Supreme Court in the wake of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March last year. But if the state had taken the apex court’s order in a suo motu petition from last year seriously, the ongoing crisis in Maharashtra’s 60 prisons could definitely have been averted.

Also read: In Maharashtra Jails, Prisoners Are Being Tested for COVID-19 Only After Their Death

Ansari’s family was only informed close to 10 hours after his death. They have accused the prison authorities of negligence. “While in custody, the prisoner is completely dependent on the authorities to make arrangements. Family members could do nothing. And the delay in making treatment available killed my father,” Ansari’s daughter Mariayam says.

According to the prison department, two prisoners, including Ansari, and one prison staffer have died in the state since the second wave began gathering pace in April. Several prisoners had died last year too.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Prisoners neglected

Although Maharashtra continues to top in the country in the number of vaccinations administered (1.61 crore as of May 1) in the country, prisoners have been neglected. Responding to a suo motu petition on conditions of prisons, advocate general Ashutosh Kumbhakoni, representing the state government, told the Bombay high court that the state’s prisons lack both allocation of vaccines and trained staff to administer them. As a result, only very few prisoners got vaccinated.

The total prison capacity of Maharashtra’s jails is 24,032. As of March 31 this year, 35,124 prisoners were languishing across different Central and district prisons. In April, the number must have further increased. This alarmingly high number – 11,000 more than the actual capacity or 146% occupancy – continues even after the state was directed to work towards decongesting prisons over a year ago.

Last year, following the Supreme Court’s order, and a series of deaths and unchecked spread of the viral infection in jails, the then home minister Anil Deshmukh was compelled to act towards decongesting prisons. The three-member high power committee, set up after the Supreme Court’s direction, had directed the release of over 10,000 prisoners. While this number wouldn’t have been sufficient, it was a small positive step towards managing the highly underequipped prison structure.

But even as the prisoners – a large section of whom were pretrial detainees – were released, the state continued to arrest people at a much higher pace. By August, the process of screening and releasing prisoners was abruptly stopped; no reasons given. By the year end, prison population was back where it had started – over 35,000 prisoners.

And now, right at the onset of the second wave, clusters and hotspots have emerged in most prisons. Data released last week showed that close to 250 prisoners and 170 prison officials have tested positive for the coronavirus. Of them, around 40 were in Byculla women’s jail, the only designated prison for women in the state.

Cultural and anti-caste activist Jyoti Jagtap, who was arrested last year for her alleged role in the Elgar Parishad case, is among those who have been infected and has been kept at a temporary centre. Her lawyers have been struggling to establish contact with her to know her medical condition. The temporary set-ups lack basic telephone facilities and many prisoners’ families have complained of their inability to check on the health and well-being of those incarcerated. Meanwhile, advocate and academic Sudha Bharadwaj, arrested in the same case and Jagtap, has started showing symptoms.

Also read: COVID-19: PUDR Asks Delhi HC to Take Action on ‘Alarming’ Situation in City’s Prisons

Bombay high court’s observations

Soon after the media began to report about the sharp rise in cases in prisons, the Bombay high court picked up the matter suo motu. A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish S. Kulkarni is presiding over the case. Senior lawyer and the state convenor of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Mihir Desai, who had approached the court last year, has been appointed amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the ongoing petition. Professor Vijay Raghavan from the Centre for Criminology and Justice at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), is also assisting the court. Both PUCL and TISS have jointly submitted a 15-page suggestion to the court on ways to handle the crisis in prisons.

The court has so far dealt with a plethora of issues – from overcrowding, vaccination drive to facilities that are to be made available in prisons.

Last year, as the first – and perhaps the only – measure, prisoners were given masks. These masks, Desai says, haven’t been resupplied. “Prisoners have been wearing the same mask for over a year,” Desai told the Bombay high court last week. Raghavan repeatedly told the court that the high power committee (HPC) that was to look into decongesting prisons has abandoned their responsibility long ago. “The last time the committee met was on May 2, 2020. This committee was responsible to look at different criteria and ensure the prisons don’t get overcrowded,” Raghavan submitted to the court.

Bombay high court. Credit: A. Savin/Wikimedia Commons

Bombay high court. Photo: A. Savin/Wikimedia Commons

Raghavan added that the Undertrial Review Committee (UTRC), which was meant to meet weekly and recommend the release of pre-trial detainees, has been making recommendations regularly. But most bails are denied by lower courts’, he said.

The Supreme Court in its directions had focussed on decongesting the prisons. The apex court had directed the HPCs to come up with their own criteria and release as many prisoners as they can. In Maharashtra, however, the focus has been on making “more space available” instead of releasing people on emergency bail or parole. As many as 24 temporary prisons have been set up. Last year, there were 36. These setups give momentary relief but do not address the larger issue of decongestion.

In the past 20 years, statistics provided by the National Crime Records Bureau indicate that over 27,000 incarcerated persons have died in prisons. While the data claims that a large number of them have died because of “natural causes”, the abysmally poor access to medical care in prisons suggests that many of these deaths could have been averted.

Also read: Vaccinate Arrested Accused Persons Above 45: HC to Maha Government

For instance, the Taloja Central prison, which houses over 3,500 prisoners (at 166 % occupancy), has only three ayurvedic doctors. None of them, according to the Maharashtra Prison Rules amended in 2015, are qualified; yet the prisoners have no one else to turn to. This, the high court pointed out last week, sums up the condition of all 60 prisons in the state. Even advocate general Kumbhakoni, representing the state government, agreed the situation needs to be addressed. The state claimed it has conducted over 64,000 COVID-19 tests, including repeat tests on some prisoners, over the past year.

The Central government has made identity proofs – in most cases the Aadhaar card – compulsory to receive a vaccine. Very few prisoners have any state-issued identity cards, leave alone Aadhaar cards. The Bombay high court observed that while the Aadhaar card might be important to maintain a nationwide database of vaccinations, their use should not hinder those who want to get vaccinated. “If an Aadhaar card is coming in the way, then let Aadhar registration camps be organised and such cards be issued,” the court observed. The case is next scheduled for hearing on May 4.