This post has been written by Sejal Sahu, student of, Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur

The COVID-19 cases are rising day by day, infecting a lot of people in the country. The Government of India is taking all the necessary steps to ensure that we are prepared well to face the challenge and threat posed by the growing pandemic of COVID-19. The Union ministry has issued various advisories in order to prevent this pandemic. One of the point being insisted upon by the government of India is to avoid crowds and to practice social distancing. So during this lockdown we all are at home and hopefully practicing social distancing.

But what about the people in the crowded Indian Jails?

At a press conference recently, Michael J Ryan of the World Health Organisation warned: “We cannot forget migrants, we cannot forget undocumented workers, we can’t forget prisoners in prisons…they may be serving sentences but they deserve no less protection under the law than others. We must leave no one behind.”

India’s prisons are notoriously crowded and lacks sanitation facilities. According to the National Crime Records Bureau India’s prisons are extremely overcrowded, and have been for a long time. For example in 2016 1,412 prisons across the country housed 4,33,003 inmates as against their combined capacity of 3,80,876. The following year, this ratio was 4,50,696 to 3,91,574 in 1,361 prisons. In 2018, as many as 4,66,084 people were held in 1,339 prisons with a total capacity of 3,92,230.

In a pandemic like this, it serves as a recipe for disaster. The spread of the pandemic in the India’s notoriously crowded prisons made the authorities to impose the lockdown in the jail and release thousands of the pretrials detainees in parole, as the health experts worry that the cramped facilities will serve as the breeding ground for the disease.

Supreme Court’s order:

The SC on March 24 asked all the States and the Union territories to set up a committee, comprising at minimum  The Chairperson of the State’s National Legal Service Authority (SALSA), and the Director General (DG) of the prisons  to find out which prisoners are undertrial and those sentenced for 7 or less years  are suitable for release or parole, along with the duration of parole or the suspension of the sentence entirely.

Commenting on the order, senior lawyer Virag Gupta said: “Articles 141 and 142 of the Indian constitution provide the Supreme Court two unique powers. The first of which is to decree special instructions or procedures to ensure correct implementation of its orders. The Supreme Court’s judgements and orders become the law of the land. Therefore, the second one is more of an institutional authority than a power.”

Further on April 13 the SC made it clear that it has not directed all the states and union territories to “compulsorily” release prisoners from jails and its earlier orders were meant to prevent over-crowding of prisons in view of coronavirus outbreak. The apex court said that the purpose of its earlier order was to ensure the states and UTs assess the situation in their prisons and release certain prisoners.

A bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and justices L Nageswara Rao and M M Shantanagoudar said its orders have to be followed in letter and spirit and will be also applicable to correctional homes, detention centres and protection homes.

“We make it clear that we have not directed the states/union territories to compulsorily release the prisoners from their respective prisons. The purpose of our aforesaid order was to ensure the states/union territories to assess the situation in their prisons having regard to the outbreak of the present pandemic in the country and release certain prisoners and for that purpose to determine the category of prisoners to be released.

“We make it clear that the order is intended to be implemented fully in letter and spirits,” it said.

The bench issued the directions in the matter after taking up the matter suo motu (on its own)

Following the apex court’s order, the Uttar Pradesh government declared that it would release 11,000 prisoners, including 8,500 undertrials, on personal bonds for eight weeks.

Tihar Jail in Delhi releases over 400 prisoners in a bid to decongest prisons. Out of the total 419 prisoners, 356 were released on an interim bail for 45 days, while the remaining 63 were released on an eight-week emergency parole. This was done after the the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) government amended prison rules last week to provide convicts the options of getting special parole and furlough to reduce the risk of coronavirus infections in crowded prisons. The amended prison rules provide for 60-day parole in case of unprecedented situations like an epidemic or a natural disaster or any other situation which mandates reducing of the population of the inmates.

Maharashta Home Minister Anil Deshmukh on Thursday said that Nagpur Central prison will be locked down immediately to prevent the spread of COVID-19.With this decision nagpur central jail became the 8th jail to be locked down in the  state according to an official statement. Prisoners working in the jail’s stitching department manufacture hundreds of masks every day and these are supplied to several prisons and government departments in the state, jail superintendent Anup Kumre said. At least 300 masks were supplied to Chandrapur district jail, while 200 were sent to Bhandara Jail and 350 will be delivered to Washim Jail soon, he said.
Earlier the government had locked down the Mumbai, Thane  and Yerwada Central prisons, Byculla and Kalyan district prisons, Aurangabad and Nashik prison to stem the spread od viral infection.

Apart from these states, other states are also taking steps in order to avoid the overcrowding of the prisons amid COVID-19.


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