At least 20 jails in Maharashtra are facing overcrowding that could lead to them becoming a possible coronavirus hotspot. Arthur Road jail in the city houses prisoners three times its capacity of 800, while Yerwada jail in Pune has over 6,000 inmates and Taloja jail in Navi Mumbai has over 3,000 inmates.
Amid of lockdown, it’s been almost 55 days since state Home Minister Anil Deshmukh announced that 11,000 prisoners would be released from state prisons, the government still not decided on the advice of a high-powered committee constituted on directions of the Supreme Court to decongest overcrowded jails. According to the summaries of the March 25 meeting of the high-powered committee, apart from under trial prisoners, the advice was to release convicted prisoners, whose maximum punishment is seven years or less. It also recommended release of convicts, except those convicted under special Acts including for money laundering and terror, who are sentenced to over seven years in jails, but have returned to prison at least twice on time, when granted parole or furlough on previous occasions.
Before the March 24 lockdown, there were nearly 36,000 prisoners housed in jails across the state, including undertrials and convicts. Till Tuesday, 4,735 prisoners, most of them undertrials facing a maximum punishment of up to seven years, have been released from 37 jails as per the orders of local courts in each district since March 24. Prisons officials, however, said that with most prisons in ‘red zones’ — COVID-19 hotspots areas — more steps towards decongesting prisons were required. Observing that the “bitter truth is that our prisons are overcrowded, making it difficult for the prisoners to maintain social distancing”, the Supreme Court had last month in a Suo Moto writ petition directed the state governments to constitute a committee for decongestion of prisons. Based on the order, a committee was constituted on March 24.
Prison officials say that decongesting jails will require releasing such convicts as well, who form a major portion of the prison population. An official from the Home Department told media that the changes to the recommendations, including on the point of release of convicts, were being discussed.