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.
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. 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 and that is the reason COVID19 deaths are on rise.
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 the media that the changes to the recommendations, including on the point of release of convicts, were being discussed.
Indian prisons have 17% more prisoners than their full capacity. Some prisons have more than double its capacity. When social distancing is key to breaking chain of infections, this kind of overflowing occupancy is a matter of grave concern. Sanitation facilities in prisons are terrible. The Maharashtra government has released 601 inmates from 37 prisons in the last few days to reduce crowding in view of the coronavirus outbreak.A total of 104 prisoners were released in the western region, 113 in central, 145 in south and 239 in east. These are from Central as well as district prisons. In the eastern region, 86 prisoners were released from Nagpur Central Jail, while in the western region, the number was 51 from Yerawada Jail.Mumbai Central Jail released 68 prisoners. These over crowded jails are vulnerable to many factors including coronavirus outbreak.
Indian prisons are known for overcrowded inmates. The sanitation facilities inside jails are horrible. Prison authorities need to ensure that inmates maintain six feet distance between each other. The authorities need to work out a plan. Having no plan to protect the prisoners from contracting novel coronavirus will be a violation of human rights.
As on December 19, the Tihar Jail had an inmate population of 17,534 while its capacity is 10,026.Maharashtra too faces a similar threat. The state has also proposed to release over 5,000 inmates, besides proposing to make Covid-19 tests mandatory for all new inmates.
Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail, which houses 3,231 inmates against a capacity of less than 1,000, has set up 20 isolation cells for sick prisoners. The high-security Yerwada Jail in Pune has 5,569 inmates and 18 kids (born inside prison). Government may take any security measures but tension remains. Haryana has also asked prison authorities to come up with a block-wise timetable relating to food and other services to prevent overcrowding. Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Maharashtra and Ladakh have identified vulnerable groups of prisoners like aged prisoners with respiratory diseases. They are given special attention. Rajasthan and Jharkhand are decongesting prisons by transferring prisoners to other, less congested prisons.
In Kerala, prison authorities are educating their inmates about the novel coronavirus and are asking them to remain conscious and cautious about their surroundings. On March 16, the Supreme Court directed all states and Union Territories to submit written replies on steps that are being taken to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus among prisoners and juveniles. On March 23, it suggested that prisoners convicted of or charged with offences involving jail terms of seven years or less could be considered for being released on parole or interim bail. Some prisoners who had been released from the Arthur Road Jail had approached private NGO’s that the living conditions at the jail are vulnerable. There is a serious question of violation of human rights at the jail. When more prisoners are accommodated than its capacity, prisoners are treated inhumanely. They suffer from health problems and the food served is pathetic. The prisoners at the jail are suffering from acute mental stress due to bad living conditions.
As per the Right To Information (RTI) data sought by the NGO, 2,844 prisoners were lodged at Arthur Road Jail on May 25. The next day, the number of prisoners increased to 2897. On May 27, the number increased to 2,819. On May 28, the number of inmates at the jail was 2,809, while on May 29th it was 2,797. On May 30, there were 2,779 prisoners, while on May 31 there were 2,766 inmates. Most prisons in India have vacancies greater than 20%. And the bigger, more populated heartland states post figures that are way higher.
India’s prisons are understaffed by at least 33 per cent with the highest vacancies found at the officer and correctional staff levels. This has increased the workload of the staff and is having an impact on the ‘correctional’ aspect of imprisonment. The findings are part of the India Justice Report 2019, an initiative of Tata Trusts.
According to the report, the nationwide prison occupancy rate stood at 114 per cent as of 2016. On any given day, there are over 400,000 prisoners in India. Much of this overcrowding is due to the presence of ‘undertrials’ – people in custody awaiting investigation, inquiry or trial – who constitute nearly 68 per cent of all prison inmates. For every convict, India has two undertrials in its jails.
The report says that overcrowding of prisons, staff shortages at all levels – officers, cadre staff, correctional staff, medical staff and medical officers – low salaries, poor training and long hours characterise prison administrations across states. Nationally, on average, vacancies ranged from 33 per cent to 38.5 per cent. These vacancies rose by 10 per cent between December 2012 and December 2016. With the exception of three states and Union Territories, all others registered high levels of vacancies in 2016.
The Model Prison Manual, 2016, has suggested one correctional officer for every 200 prisoners and one psychologist for every 500. Nationally, as of 2016, this ratio stands at one welfare officer per 2,033 prisoners and 21,650 prisoners for one psychologist. At the cadre level, as of 2016, only 15 states met the benchmark of six inmates per cadre set by the manual.