Token Temporary Measures to Decongest Prisons Can't Save Inmates from COVID-19

Immediate and permanent measures to improve medical care in prisons are necessary to prevent any colossal tragedy, as already 2,803 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in the country.

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in another spike of positive cases in prisons across the country. According to various news reports, in prisons across the country, as many as 2,803 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and nine inmates and one prison staff have succumbed to the virus during the second wave of the pandemic since March 2021.

Prison inmates are one of the most vulnerable populations during a pandemic. As they assume the status of ‘ward of the state’ and are entirely dependent on the authorities for their wellbeing, the government has a greater responsibility to protect their right to life and health. This responsibility lies with the state government as per Schedule VII, List II, Entry 4 of the constitution

On May 7, taking cognisance of the spread of the pandemic in prisons, the Supreme Court ordered the state authorities to limit arrests and decongest prisons. Earlier, on April 16, the Bombay high court initiated suo-moto public interest litigation (PIL) to address this situation. On April 20, the Bombay high court issued an order directing the state government to conduct an RT-PCR test for every individual arrested and vaccinate every accused above 45 years. Further, the court also directed the state to establish temporary prisons and COVID-19 care centres, and release inmates on parole and interim bail to minimise the outbreak.

Also read: As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Activists, Lawyers Appeal for the Release of Prisoners in Delhi

In March 2020, the Supreme Court had recommended similar temporary measures to prevent the outbreak in the prisons. However, even after these measures, the pandemic resulted in as many as 18,157 positive COVID-19 cases and 17 deaths in prisons last year.

Representative Photo: Public domain

Inadequate temporary measures 

Lack of infrastructure, poor sanitation and medical care has been a longstanding concern for our prison system. These issues have exacerbated during the pandemic, making inmates extremely vulnerable to the virus. In the absence of measures to address these concerns, the temporary measures to decongest prisons have quite naturally been insufficient to address the spread of infection.

a. Decongestion of prisons

On March 23, 2020, the Supreme Court asked states to consider releasing prisoners on parole and interim bail to decongest the prisons. However, the measure proved insufficient as even after the implementation of this direction, 27% of the prisons in 19 states continue to be overcrowded.

The limited functioning of the courts and procedural hurdles delayed decongestion measures across the country. Moreover, the increased use of criminal justice machinery during the lockdown resulted in a high number of arrests, thereby nullifying the effect of this measure. A study by the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project shows that in Madhya Pradesh, while the state government released 6,500 to 7,000 inmates to decongest prisons, in the immediate months after the announcement of the lockdown, just as many new undertrial inmates (6,497 inmates) were added to the prison population. As a result, at the end of June 2020, 109 out of 131 jails in Madhya Pradesh continued to be overcrowded, and 23 jails housed twice the number of inmates than their capacities.

b. Isolation of new inmates

The isolation of new prison inmates intends to decrease the ingress in prison and thereby transmission of the infection from outside. However, in the absence of proper sanitation and medical facilities in prisons, it is difficult to expect a healthy and caring environment in these isolation centres.

The accounts of undertrial prisoners in the Panchpouli COVID-19 quarantine centre are highlighted in these articles (here and here) published on The Wire. As per one undertrial prisoner, while the new inmates were housed separately from those tested positive for COVID-19, there was no such separation during meals. Further, as per the accounts, the isolation centre had very poor sanitary conditions and a total lack of medical support, even for pregnant inmates.

c. Establishing COVID-19 care centre

A COVID-19 care centre is important to ensure medical care to the inmates. However, establishing such centres will also require a sufficient number of medical professionals. As per the Prison Statistics 2019, as of December 31, 2019, prisons in India had only 762 medical officers to care for 4,78,600 prison inmates.

The lack of medical professionals in prisons and general apathy towards prison inmates may result in inhumane conditions for those suffering from COVID-19. The recent reports regarding the condition of Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan raise similar concerns. In a letter to the Chief Justice of India, Kappan’s wife Raihanth noted that Siddique, who tested positive for COVID-19 in Mathura prison and was undergoing treatment in KM Medical College Hospital, was chained to a cot like an animal and was even denied access to the toilet.

Inmates at the Patiala Central Jail stitch masks to help deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo: PTI

Immunisation of inmates 

Despite being one of the most vulnerable demography in this pandemic, the majority of prison inmates are yet to receive vaccine jabs.

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

Recently, some states like Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Kerala have initiated vaccination drives for inmates. However, except Kerala, no other states have provided a clear timeline for the vaccination programme. In the absence of any plan to prioritise prison inmates for vaccination, the looming shortage of vaccines can further delay their immunisation.

Build capacity and amplify medical care in prisons

In their order, the Bombay high court observed that the present prison system is “woefully short of the requirements” and said that it is “high time that the appropriate department of the (state) government looks into the proposals as early as possible and conveys the green signal for setting up new prisons…”

Though establishing new prisons requires extensive planning and adequate budgetary allocation, an expedited process is crucial to address the capacity constraints and prepare the prisons for similar challenges in the future.

Apathy towards prisoners and the absence of adequate medical care will make it impossible to tackle the rising COVID-19 cases in prisons. Immediate and permanent measures to improve medical care are necessary to prevent any colossal tragedy.

Aditya Ranjan is a Research Fellow for the Judicial Reforms Initiative at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.