Prisons, Parole and Pandemic

At a time when the entire world is grappling with the spread of China-originated Coronavirus, the prisons and inmates are also not immune from the contagious disease. Jails and prisons house large number of people, even many poses chronic disease and complex medical needs which do not get accessed to proper medical care, and are more vulnerable to coronavirus. They act as amplifiers of infectious diseases, because social distancing is impossible inside. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that prisons across the world can expect “huge mortality rates” from COVID-19.

Jails often lag of space crunch, lack of basic hygiene and in a pandemic like this, the Jail administration’s cluelessness on how to handle a viral outbreak in case it happens inside may worsen the situation. Lowering people in jails will reduce the rapid movement of people in and out jails which also reduces the risk of virus transmission into the prison and helps maintain a size to which appropriate medical care can be provided. To ensure complete safety of remaining prisoners not released, all must be provided with masks, general awareness should be imparted on how the virus can affect them and the precautionary measures they need to take, the ones having symptoms of cold or fever should be kept in separate cells and the ones brought in from police custody to jail custody or from other jails, shall be properly screened.

The Supreme Court of India on March 23, 2020, taking suo moto cognizance of overcrowding of prisons in a bid to decongest them ordered on the basis of 2016 judgment in ‘re-inhuman conditions in 1382 prisons’ that prisoners charged with offences having jail term of upto of seven years can be released on parole for a period of 45 days or till such time that the State government withdraws the Notification under the Epidemics act, 1987, whichever is earlier and each state will constitute a high-powered committee which will determine which class of prisoners can be released on parole/ interim bail on personal bond or medical furlough for such period as may be appropriate.

Such committee shall work in consultation with the State Legal Service Authority to decide on the release. The order also says that the Under-trial prisoners shall report to the concerned police station, within whose jurisdiction they are residing, once every 30 days. However, the order exempts Under-trial prisoners who are booked for serious offences under MCOCA, PMLA, NDPS, and UAPA etc. (which provides for additional restrictions on bail). The Apex Court has made the order applicable to correctional homes, detention centers and protection homes as well.

With the left-out prisoners in the prisons, the administration has decided to drastically reduce or completely stop for the time being, visitation of friends and family to reduce the risk and have been relying on phone and video calls as an alternative arrangement for communication.

This global pandemic, possesses a grave challenge to India’s prisons, which houses more than 4,66,084 prisoners. This is 17.6% more than their authorized capacity, according to the Prison Statistics of India, 2018, released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The Statistics also revealed that 1,559 prisoners died of illness in 2018, and that only 4% of total prison expenditure is on medical needs. Jails are high-risk environments for disease, where pathogens are easily transmitted, reported the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

The convicted prisoners also have fundamental right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution of India to be protected by the state in the event of pandemic and it would be a parody of justice if a wrongly, implicated under-trial prisoner dies due spread of the infectious disease in prison.

This article is authored by Govind Hari Lath, final year studet at Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.

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