It is the year 2020. A pandemic has broken out from Wuhan, China to the rest of the world within a few months. The world has come to a standstill. The only way to contain this virus is by avoiding getting infected by it by maintaining proper hygiene, wearing a mask and by social distancing. There is no vaccine yet that could cure this disease. Countries across the globe are imposing lockdowns. Schools, colleges, places of worship were shut down in order to avoid crowded places.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the dynamic of the entire world including the dynamics of prison. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted prisons. In correctional facilities around the world, outbreaks of COVID-19 have been recorded, with the housing density and population turnover in many prisons leading to an increased risk of the virus contracting relative to the general population. In jails and prisons, inmate crowding, and lack of hygiene initiatives add to the risk of contracting illnesses. In order to minimize density and try to reduce the transmission of the epidemic, some municipalities have released inmates as a preventive measure.
In addition to inmate outrage about their chance of contracting the disease in prison conditions, there have also been demonstrations by inmates and prison breaks in many countries. Prisons are crowded. It gets very difficult to contain the virus from spreading in such a crowded place. A lot of countries came up with the concept of temporary prisons in order to prevent the spreading of virus from one inmate to another The Maharashtra government declared on March 26 that nearly 11,000 prisoners will be released either on provisional bail or parole, both under-trials and convicts who have been imprisoned for minor and non-heinous offences.
The proposed number of prisoners to be released was updated in May, after cases began to be recorded within the jails, to 17,000, which is half the pre-lockdown population of inmates in prisons across the state. Until June 1, the number of released prisoners was 9,600. However, the process of freeing prisoners has significantly slowed down after the first week of June. So far, a total of 10,400 prisoners have been released. The proposed number of prisoners to be released was updated in May, after cases began to be recorded within the jails, to 17,000, which is half the pre-lockdown population of inmates in prisons across the state. Until June 1, the number of released prisoners was 9,600. However, the process of freeing prisoners has significantly slowed down after the first week of June. So far, a total of 10,400 prisoners have been released.
There are different explanations why COVID-19 concentrations could be higher in prison. There have been problems in tests to validate cases, as with the broader world, but there are also particular variables for all prisons and inmates that could shed more light on the subject. The percentages are not just down to how many assessments in prisons have taken place with COVID-19. In the early stages of the pandemic, it was confirmed that not all inmates with COVID-19 symptoms were tested because samples were not readily available.
It was believed that those with symptoms had the virus and were reported as ‘possible/likely’ rather than ‘proven’ cases. In the absence of details about who was tested in custody, the higher rates of reported cases for inmates relative to the general public may partially indicate, for example, the concentration of tests on inmates who displayed more overt symptoms due to their age and/or poor health.
The release of age band test results, as well as hospitalization rates, would cause further conclusions to be made about this. Many other risk factors for the infection are also faced by inmates. A specific vulnerability is a physical condition in prisons. Many inmates remain in communal cells and overcrowding, and inconsistent ventilation ensures that simple infection controls for COVID-19, such as social distancing and daily hand-washing, are far more difficult to enforce.
To decrease the burden of COVID-19, preventive and management techniques should be introduced in correctional and detention facilities. Symptom screening at exits, preventing overcrowding, staggering meal and recreation hours, facial coverings, signs, and preparation are some preventive measures. Info-sharing programs can be built for hospitals to treat reported and suspicious cases and separate potentially infectious persons.
Measures to prevent spreading of COVID 19 virus
- There should be a lot of space in order to avoid overcrowding. There should be a limit as to how many people can gather at one place. If possible, gatherings should be avoided.
- The prison should be clean and hygienic. It is important to sanitize each and every room on a regular basis to maintain hygiene.
- Proper handwashing stations and hand sanitizing station should be installed at an adequate distance and inmates should be made aware about the importance of washing or sanitizing hands.
- Adequate ventilation is a must in prisons.
- Inmates must avoid sharing any kind of personal products such as towels etc.
Plight of Prisoners
Prisoners are subjected to certain working conditions in India that are shocking to human standards. Over the years, the continuous exposure to inhumane and unhygienic procedures has had significant physical and psychological effects for the inmates and has just placed a cherry to the top of the pandemic. It has revealed the true and significant consequences for the lives of the inmates. Over the years, the situation and living conditions of the inmates have worsened. In general, the wealthy have the luxury of either getting a simple exit or better service. The rule that is there to serve everyone fairly, though, also seems unequal to the poor.
The lack of medical staff and exponential increase of COVID-19 jail cases is an alarm to society to repair its jails and protect the prisoners’ lives and freedoms. Each one of us will inevitably be affected by this pandemic. This time, the true living conditions of the inmates have even been brought forward for the public to see how people are exposed to such egregious living conditions. Right now, we need to acknowledge what India wants is effective enforcement of its laws, there are so many good laws to protect prisoner rights, but its weak implementation is the issue.
Human rights in India are now on the brink of becoming a plague. That is the moment where the state and persons work together to resolve the problem. Prisons should be viewed not as a facility that fills their lives with pain and trauma, but as a recovery centre. Next, as a suggestive measure, the establishment of additional jails to prevent overcrowding should be our main priority in order to improve the conditions.
Secondly, it is noted that the poverty stricken class is most likely to commit offences and there are always no opportunities for their ends to be reached, and thus jails can serve as a reforming hub for them with sufficient vocational programmes so that they can rebuild their lives again rather than being trapped in the endless painful cycle.
According to the Prison Statistics of India survey, India’s prisons are overcrowded, with the prison occupancy rate at 115.1 percent in 2017. Nearly 69% of the inmates were guilty, while the remainder were convicted. At 165%, Uttar Pradesh’s jail was the most populated, followed by Chhattisgarh at 157.2% and Delhi at 151.2%. The primary cause for overcrowding is the vast number of undertrials pending the disposition of their cases. Though even under usual times, overcrowding in prisons is a problem, concern has been intensified as the novel coronavirus spreads in India. On paper, to decongest jails, India has taken the right measures. Yet, an on-ground review reveals that the circumstances remain dire. Overcrowding in major cities is worse than that. The Arthur Road prison in Mumbai is now almost three times the official size of 900. It does not encourage social distancing, even if one were to judge it by its official capacity. If you have to do social distancing, you have to reduce 50 percent of the official capacity. Some courts are in a confinement environment, like the Kalyan session court in Maharashtra.
The condition, however, is dynamic. Yet the courts need to remember that we are living in exceptional times and that extra ordinary decisions which have to be made in those cases. The courts have taken the view that those detained have been removed in the sense of fiscal, terror-related, and organized crime and the passport act.
The convicted who are convicted with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) or those who are charged with “organized” crime are exempted. I believe it should have been categorized based on age, comorbidity, pregnancy, disabilities. For now, though, the whole categorization is based on the severity of the offence rather than the dangers presented by the virus.
The thing about prisons is, when visitors are not authorized, you never know what is going inside. Based on anecdotal evidence, you can only form an image. We are assured that masks and sanitation problems are being taken care of, but that may not be appropriate. The fear of Covid-19, however, is so high that it has improved cleanliness within prisons. Officials know their heads will roll if the case becomes severe.
Rights of Prisoners
Under Article 21, the Right to Life is similarly applicable to those guilty of any offence. While one is stripped of his other privileges, he still retains the rights granted in compliance with Article 21. In the Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration case, after the date of his arrest, the defendant who was sentenced to death on charges of murder and theft had been held in solitary confinement.
Subsequently, the petitioner lodged a PIL against his sentence, the Court ruled that the prosecution of an individual for a crime would not reduce him to a non-human who is subject to a major penalty levied by the prison authority without compliance with due procedural protections, and that treatment is not contradictory to Article 21. With respect to jail reforms, the Court played a complex and positive role in the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar. The Court ruled that free legal assistance and quick trials should be provided to inmates and the Court clearly highlighted the need for changes to the conditions in India’s prisons.
How will it affect us?
So far, about 1500 inmates and workers have tested positive for COVID-19. About a thousand people walk in and out of jail on a regular basis. While a number of individuals have been released due to a pandemic, a substantial number of individuals have also been confined for breaching the laws of lockdown.
This bail exemption, therefore, has not really made a big difference in the life and conditions of the inmates. The overcrowding and loss of medical personnel also made matters worse. Along with overcapacity in prisons at 118 percent occupancy, both of them feature high-frequency tourists and attorneys accessing the grounds. Prisons are also not hygienic due to space limitations and other considerations, such as the shortage of basic hygiene and healthcare provision.
Even Maja Daruwala, NHRC’s special police and prison reform monitor, mentioned that the State has a duty of treatment to its inmates. Prisons across India, however, do not have state government budgets, services or sufficient attention to ensure that prisoners are properly shielded from the virus. Increased inmate and employee infection transforms into significant outside risk.
Prisons must provide facilities for social distancing, isolation, proper hygiene, and quarantine. The State has to ensure that all the conditions that are essential for maintaining a proper and safe environment are met. For example:
- Adequate space for individual prisoners
- Proper sanitization facilities
- Hand-washing stations to be installed
- Proper ventilation
- Restricting gatherings
- Maintaining cleanliness and hygiene
- Avoiding overcrowding
- Providing proper security, especially to female prisoners
- Constant testing
- Isolating prisoners that show symptoms of COVID-19.
Another thing that has to be dealt with controlling the prison population. In the end, we must recognize that the right to life of inmates is just as vital as any other citizen’s right to life, and that their security is an immense obligation for all of us.
This article has been written by Ashwati Dinesh Kottayi, 4th-year law student pursuing BBA. LLB (Hons) from Amity University Mumbai.
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