Tamanna Gupta, a Third year student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab, reviews various rights accorded to prisoners across the country during Covid-19.
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until it has been inside its jails, A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”- Nelson Mandela.
Prisoners Rights have been a subject of controversy since the late eighteenth century. Due to COVID-19 being declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organization, and in light of more than 4 lakh deaths worldwide, several steps are being taken to ensure that the rights of prisoners are not hampered. Several jails are resorting to releasing prisoners en masse, while others are testing all the prisoners for COVID-19, and there are plans for setting up centres for testing COVID within jails, as well as plans for setting up temporary arrangements for prisoners who might be affected by COVID-19, as well as to de-congest the prisons. In light of all these developments, it is imperative to look into the various rights accorded to prisoners across the country.
OVERCROWDED PRISONS- AN IGNOMINIOUS REALITY
The denial of bail to the several accused arrested due to the Elgaar Parishad Bhima Koregaon case hit the headlines recently. It also brought to the fore misgivings about the conditions of prisoners languishing in Indian jails during the COVID-19 pandemic, in light of the hospitalization of prominent activist Varavara Rao on May 28, after reports surfaced that his treatment at Taloja Jail was unsuccessful. People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) issued a clarion call for ensuring bail to political prisoners, especially sexagenarians, and prisoners suffering from co-morbidities. In a press statement, PUCL stated that ensuring conditions conducive to prisoners’ life and health is a duty of the state.
PUCL also condemned the abysmal prison conditions in India during COVID-19.
The reality of the overcrowding in Indian prisons in the present context is an open secret. The number of prisoners as compared to the capacity of a prison reflect a wide gap, which has been harped on by several activists and organizations, clearly falling on deaf ears of the authorities, until COVID-19 cases started emerging in several prisons across India, prompting prison authorities to launch a haphazardly planned series of actions to ensure the safety of the prisoners.
The ‘Prisons Statistics India’, released by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), stated
- More than 4.5 lakh prisoners were lodged in various jails across India, by the end of 2017, with a lodging capacity of 3.91 lakh prisoners.
- More than 4.33 lakh prisoners (2016) adjusted in the provisions meant for 3.8 lakh prisoners.
The reason ascribed to the present state of affairs is the swarms of under-trial prisoners, who eagerly await grant of bail or judgment at the hands of the Courts.
Several issues have cropped up, which now challenge the prison authorities such as security and safety in prison, health and hygiene issues, and safety of the prisoners, which cannot be unseen during the pandemic. The jail authorities have taken several measures such as releasing under-trials, aged prisoners, and even setting up temporary jails for housing COVID-19 suspected prisoners.
A CATALYST FOR PRISON REFORMS-SPREAD OF COVID-19 IN PRISONS
After the incidents of the spread of COVID-19 in several state prisons hit the headlines, coupled with news and media channels reporting upon the extent and severity of the same due to the inaction of the courts and other authorities, prison officials sprang into action.
- In Mumbai, the forebodings of Arthur Road Jail superintendent that the spread of COVID would not be able to be controlled in the jail due to the problem of overcrowding came into revelation, after 184 of the prisoners lodged in Arthur Road Jail tested positive for COVID-19.
- In Jaipur, Rajasthan, authorities have to get the entirety of the prison staff and all inmates tested for COVID-19, after nearly 150 prisoners tested positive.
- In Agra, Uttar Pradesh, the death of an inmate in Agra Central Jail led to panic and confusion, amidst which 14 other inmates were quarantined and tested for COVID-19.
- In Ludhiana, Punjab, the first case wherein a prisoner tested positive for COVID-19 was diagnosed at Ludhiana Jail, identified as a 48-year-old woman inmate.
- In Delhi, cases were diagnosed in Rohini Jail, which led to quarantining several other prisoners.
FREE RANGE PRISONERS-ACTIONS TAKEN BY AUTHORITIES
After the Supreme Court issued directions to ensure the release of prisoners subject to conditions, to ensure de-congesting in prisons, several states have taken steps for the welfare of the prisoners.
The action taken by each state differed, depending upon the density of persons lodged in prisons, nature of the crime committed, age of the prisoner, etc.
While several states resorted to releasing prisoners en masse, in several instances temporary facilities were created for the relocation of prisoners, and for prisoners who were suspected to be COVID-19 positive. Many prisons turned to test the entirety of the prison staff and inmates for COVID-19.
- In Punjab, 9773 inmates have been set free from jails all over the state, as stated by a government official.
- In New Delhi, a whooping 3500 inmates were released from three of the centre’s most congested jails-Tihar Jail, Asia’s largest prison facility, Rohini Jail, and Mandoli Jail.
- In Maharashtra, over 7200 prisoners have been released from prisons all over the state.
- In Assam, over 3500 prisoners were released.
- In Bihar, the government shifted around 4500 prisoners from overcrowded to less crowded prisons; however, no prisoner was granted bail or parole.
- In Ghaziabad, a temporary facility has been set up at Adyatmik Nagar after a spurt of cases in Sahibabad.
- Plans are being made to set up facilities at Ghaziabad, Meerut, Bhagpat, Agra and Meerut.
- In Kerala, the authorities are now only admitting prisoners out on parole or bail, after the completion of their bail term, only if they test negative for COVID-19. Each prisoner is being tested before re-admission in prison. Prisoners are lodged at quarantine centres or designated hospitals till they test negative for COVID-19, after which they are re-lodged in the prisons, depending on the result.
- After several cases were tested positive at jails in different states, contract tracing was done, and prisoners were quarantined. In some cases, the entire prison staff and inmates were tested.
RIGHTS OF PRISONERS-INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENTS
Prisoners Rights have been a subject of wide debate and discussion, both nationally and internationally. Several International statutes and covenants lay down rights for the prisoners, such as the United Declaration of Human Rights (1948), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976). Recently, the Mandela Rules (UN Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners) (2015) were drafted by the UN for ensuring humane treatment to prisoners.
RIGHTS OF INDIAN PRISONERS DURING COVID-19
In the Indian Context, Prisons Act 1894, recently amended by Prisons (Amendment) Bill 2016, regulates the management, rules and regulation for prisons in India.
While Section 7 of the Prisons Act 1894 protects the Right to Accommodation, aiming at providing for suitable and safe accommodation to prisoners, Section 14, 37 and 39 of the Act, ensures for the presence of a medical officer, reporting of ailments, and presence of hospital within prison premises. Section 39-A, added by the Prisons (Amendment) Bill 2016 states that jail authorities shall be responsible for maintaining basic hygiene in premises. These provisions ensure the rights of the prisoners during the all-encompassing pandemic.
While several measures are already in place in order to ensure that the rights of prisoners are not violated during the lockdown, the government needs to have a pro-active approach in order to ensure the timely de-congestion of jails, re-accommodation of prisoners at alternate establishments, and the courts must ensure that mass testing is conducted within the most crowded jails across the country. Since several cases have already emerged across prisons in the country, courts and prison authorities have to work in tandem in order to ensure that COVID-19 doesn’t spread like wildfire in the Indian Prisons. Till then, one can only speculate upon the state of affairs. COVID-19 should not serve as a red herring for prisoner rights, which shall remain a contentious issue, even in the post-COVID-19 scenario.
Tamanna Gupta is a Third Year Student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab
Sonam Saigal, Denying bail in Elgaar Parishad case to political prisoners is callous: PUCL, T.H India, June 2, 2020.
FP Staff, Indian Jails overcrowded, understaffed, reveals NCRB Report; Most prisoners are under-trials, over 70% of them haven’t studied till Class 10, Firstpost.com, (June 11, 2020, 12:49 am), https://www.firstpost.com/india/ncrb-report-on-jails-most-prisoners-are-undertrials-over-70-of-them-havent-studied-till-class-10-reveals-data-7538171.html.
PTI, COVID-19 Outbreak in Jaipur jail worries authorities, thousands of prisoners released on bail or parole across India, I.T. India, May 17, 2020.
Peeyush Khandelwal, Temporary Jail in Ghaziabad for suspects of Coronavirus cases, H.T. India, April 24, 2020.
Prisons Act 1894, Act of Parliament, 1894 (India).
IMPORTANT – Opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IJOSLCA.