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

Flouting ICMR protocol, prison authorities have not been conducting tests on those in contact with infected prisoners or on high-risk people.

Mumbai: If a prisoner in Maharashtra were to be infected with COVID-19, chances are that she would be tested only after her death. And on her death, the prison authorities won’t follow contact tracing exercises, nor conduct tests on people who could have come in close contact with those who tested positive.

According to the affidavit prepared by the Maharashtra additional director general of police Sunil Ramanand, in all four deaths registered in three separate prisons, tests were conducted only after the prisoners died. These prisons also did not conduct any further tests to see if other prisoners or prison staff were likely to have come in contact with the deceased person and were possibly infected too.

In at least 10 out of 60 prisons in the state, there have been an outbreak of highly infectious COVID-19 virus, and as many as 269 incarcerated persons have already tested positive. These infections were recorded even when the prisons authorities had claimed that utmost care have been taken to keep them free from COVID- 19 infection.

The affidavit, submitted on June 15, is in response to the ongoing public interest litigation (PIL) hearing filed by People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), and human rights lawyers Archana Rupwate and Afreen Khan.

The prison department, in its response to the Bombay high court, earlier had claimed that tests were conducted only in symptomatic cases. This is against the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) guidelines which has made tests compulsory in the case of asymptomatic direct and high-risk contacts of a confirmed case. While the ICMR protocol issued on May 18 says that they need to be tested between day five and ten, the prisons authorities, in its response on June 8, has claimed that, “It does not deem it necessary to obtain and test swabs of all the inmates.”

In the last hearing, a division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice S.S. Shinde had asked the prison department to submit details of testing protocols it followed in prisons. The petitioners have raised an alarm over the lack of testing in the jails and clear flouting of the ICMR protocols.

Also read: COVID-19: Maharashtra Women Prisons Hit Hard, Safety of Children a Prime Concern

Of the four deaths recorded in the prisons, one person was an 80-year-old man who has been in Yerwada central prison since February 15, 2019. The prisoner, according to the authorities, was admitted to Sasoon hospital on May 7 after he complained of respiratory tract infection and vomiting. Two days later, he passed away. On his death, he was found to be COVID- 19 positive.

The authorities, however, on discovering his result, did not carry out further tests in the prison. So far, only one person – who died – has been tested, according to the affidavit submitted to the high court. ADGP Ramanand, however, has claimed that 4466 screenings of prisoners were carried until June 13.

Similarly, another person, a 53-year-old man who was admitted to Taloja central prison on April 24 this year, was hospitalised at the state-run JJ hospital on May 9. He died the same day. “The cause of death was certified as Pneumonia cellusis with COVID- 19,” the report states. He was clearly moved to the hospital after his condition deteriorated and died the same day. In this case too, the prison authorities have evaded further contact tracing and tests.

On May 27, another prisoner, a 33-year-old man died by suicide inside Taloja prison hospital. His tests were carried out after he had died and the report confirmed he was positive too. The report says he killed himself in the jail hospital but is silent on the reasons he had landed in the hospital.

Taloja prison has reported two deaths. Still, the state has carried out only two swab tests, and both tests are conducted on those dead.

The prison authorities have claimed that that they have “screened” 2,217 persons in Taloja central prison. These screenings include testing body temperature and asking the person if she had any symptoms. Since the jail authorities have not conducted any further tests, there is no way to find out the extent of the spread of the infection.

A similar case was reported from Dhule district prison when a 23-year-old man died on May 13. He was sent to prison only on May 9 and by May 12, he, according to the prison authorities, had developed “withdrawal symptoms”. A day later he died and the doctors claimed that he died of “sepsis with alcohol and ganja withdrawal with policythemia”. His positive status was known only on his death, the affidavit claims.

Besides those prisons that have reported cases of death, others too have not carried out tests proportionate to the number of prisoners lodged. According to the prison data released for end of May, as many as 2,908 prisoners are lodged at Thane central prison. But only 11 swab tests have been conducted so far. Of them two persons have been tested positive.

Also read: COVID-19: At Least Three Die in Maharashtra Prisons

ADGP Ramanand, in his affidavit, has accepted that the prison, which has a capacity to accommodate only 1.105 prisoners, has an occupancy rate of a whopping 263%. “Thane central prison is grossly overcrowded. The superintendent has requested Thane collector to open a temporary prison. However, no temporary prison has been opened as yet,” the ADGP has claimed in his response to the court.

As compared to prisons that have reported tests in single digits, Mumbai central prison, Aurangabad central prison, and district prisons in Solapur and Satara have done considerably well with 545, 517, 377 and 187 tests respectively.

As many as 35 temporary prisons have been arranged in 26 districts. 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. These temporary arrangements have been made to decongest prisons and to also provide quarantine facilities for new arrestees before moving them to the main prison.

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. Since March, the state home minister Anil Deshmukh has, on several occasions, had claimed that he is serious about decongesting prisons. While the initial decision was to release 11,000 of the over 37,000 prisoners lodged across 60 prisons of the state, the process have been inching ahead slowly. This number of releases was later revised to 17,000. But so far, as per the prison data, less than 10,000 persons have been released.