103 Test COVID-19 Positive in Mumbai's Arthur Road Jail, Authorities Say Worst Yet to Come

The Maharashtra home department had promised to release over 11,000 prisoners but so far fewer than 7,000 have been released as the health crisis rages.

Mumbai: The delay in the process of decongesting Maharashtra’s prisons has already led to the first major outbreak of COVID-19 in Mumbai’s Arthur Road central prison.

Of the 270 tested, 77 inmates and 26 staff members have tested positive. The numbers, officials say, are expected to rise dramatically in the coming days. 

A senior jail authority has said that all undertrial prisoners who tested positive will be shifted to GT Hospital & St George Hospital in guarded vehicles on May 8 morning. Members of jail staff will be shifted out separately. 

The first case of infection in Mumbai was reported after an undertrial prisoner was taken to JJ Hospital in Mumbai for treatment. The inmate, a 45-year-old man, had suffered paralysis attack in the prison on May 2 and was rushed to treatment, an official told The Wire.

“He had a high fever when he was brought in. His swabs were sent for test and he tested positive,” a doctor, privy to the tests, said.

The prisoner’s positive test result sent prison officials into a tizzy and soon more tests were conducted.

Although, Arthur Road prison, like most other central prisons in the state are under a complete lockdown, members of allied staff have been moving in and out of the prison. “Essential services like milk, vegetables and groceries come in every day. 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 member of the jail authority said.

Also read: Maharashtra Prisoner Released on Parole Says Jails Unprepared to Handle COVID-19 Pandemic

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 of 804 people. 

In addition to those at Arthur Road, four positive cases of coronavirus infection have been reported in the Satara district prison. Recently, over 45 prisoners from Pune were moved into Satara, after Yerwada central prison in Pune refused to take in new inmates.

The first cases of the contagion came in when nearly 46 persons were sent to Satara jail from Pune in batches. Two persons — a man and a woman — were arrested for assault and shifted to the jail after spending a few days in the police remand. They tested positive. Since then, the jail authorities and the district administration have been having a tough time carrying out the contact tracing exercise in the district.  

Satara prison has the capacity to house only 159 prisoners. But currently, over 270 undertrial prisoners are lodged there.

Under-trial prisoners who were shifted from Mangalore to Chikmagalur district jail stand in queues as they wait for their heath-checkup. Photo: PTI

On March 16, a Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde, had taken suo motu note of the situation and recommended the urgent release of prisoners within a week to reduce the overcrowding of Indian jails in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. On March 23, the state home minister Anil Deshmukh had announced that nearly 11,000 prisoners would be released on emergency bail or parole. Over a month and a half later, fewer than 7,000 people have been released. 

In light of so many people testing positive in the prison, Deshmukh said that all prisoners were lodged at one single barrack and necessary arrangements have been made to shift them to hospitals and quarantine facilities.

This decision to release them was taken following the Supreme Court’s order to set up a high-powered committee – constituted on the basis of the 2016 judgment on inhuman conditions in 1,382 Indian prisons. The committee first met on March 24 and had decided:

“Under trial prisoners who have been booked/charged for such offences for which maximum punishment is 7 years or less be favourably considered for released on interim bail on personal bond of such amount as may be determined, for a period of 45 days or till such time that the State Government withdraw the Notification under the Epidemics Act, 1987, whichever is earlier.”

The order passed by the committee head and also a sitting judge of the Bombay high court A.A. Sayed states:

“The initial period of 45 days shall stand extended periodically in block of 30 days each, till such time the said notification issued (in the event the said notification is not issued within the first 45 days). The Undertrial prisoners shall report to the concern police station within whose jurisdiction they are residing, once every 30 days.”

This order exempts undertrial prisoners who are booked for serious economic offences/bank scams and offences under special Acts (other than the Indian Penal Code) like MCOCA, PMLA, MPID, NDPS, UAPA etc. (which provide for additional restrictions on bail, in addition to those under the Code of Criminal Procedure) and also at present to foreign nationals and undertrial prisoners who live outside Maharashtra.

Contrary to the Supreme Court’s order to decongest jails in India and release incarcerated persons on bail or parole to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus in the prisons, on April 2, Justice Anand Badar of the Bombay high court had observed that bail applications cannot be treated as an “urgent judicial matter” at the time of a pandemic.

In an ex-parte hearing of a bail application filed in a case of cheating, Justice Badar had observed that the term ‘urgent’ is subjective and it does not apply for those in jail and seeking bail.

Also read: In the Time of Coronavirus, the Right to Bail is Part of an Undertrial’s Right to Life

After prisoners started testing positive, several undertrial prisoners have now moved a contempt petition before the Supreme Court against the Maharashtra government. In the petition, the prisoners have alleged that the state has failed to comply with the apex court’s order despite making a express statement before the court. 

While the state is dragging its feet with the release of prisoners, it has been proactive in registering new cases in the past month. As many as 96,231 new offences have been registered in the state and around 683 persons have been arrested in cases of assault on policemen.

Since mid-March, families and lawyers of prisoners have not been allowed to make jail visits. After several petitions to the state authorities and the court, prison telephone services have been set up. But this system too has not been working effectively.

After the news of the contagion broke, a 24-year-old woman frantically began making calls to the Arthur road prison to find out if her husband was one of those infected. She said she was asked to call back ‘next week’.

“I haven’t been able to talk to my husband for over a week. I have been calling the landline number just to find out if my husband is fine. The prisons should at least inform the family members about the infection. This is cruel,” she said. 

Maharashtra’s patient count has been the highest at 14,541. In Mumbai, particularly, with 10,714 cases (as on May 6), the health infrastructure has been under severe pressure. In some wards of Mumbai’s municipal corporation, the waiting time to find a bed is almost three days

A group of over 130 human rights lawyers have also approached a high-power committee, seeking haste in the process of release of prisoners and the consideration of old and ailing prisoners for release. The group had written the first letter on March 29 and have sent another reminder on April 28 after the committee failed to respond.

The fear of the infection had led to a violent situation inside the Dum Dum central correctional home in Kolkata on March 21. As the prisoners began to protest demanding meetings with their family members and their release, the prison authorities had resorted to force and this led to a violent clash between the two. Several prisoners and prison staff were severely injured in the attack.   

Last month, 19 prisoners and jail guards at the Central Jail in Madhya Pradesh’s Indore city tested positive for coronavirus. 

Prisons in India, like in most countries, have always been neglected spaces where overcrowding is a norm. According to the recent prison statistics for 2018, 4,66,084 prisoners were confined in as many as 1,339 jails in the country by the end of the year.

However, the total prison capacity is 3,96,223.

Among the states, Uttar Pradesh has reported the highest overcrowding, at 176.5%, followed by Sikkim (157.3%), Chhattisgarh (153.3%), Uttarakhand (150%), Maharashtra (148.9%), Madhya Pradesh (147%) and Meghalaya (143.5%). Among Union Territories, Delhi has reported the highest overcrowding at 154.3%. 

Globally, handling the prison system has proved to be a particular challenge amid the ongoing pandemic. Many countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey have released prisoners on a large scale in a decongestion effort.