As India struggles to contain the exponential rise in the spread of the Coronavirus, several prisons across the country are becoming hotspots of infections, putting the lives of prisoners including the under-trails and staff to grave risk. A Groundxero report.
Recently, Assam’s Guwahati Central Jail and Nagpur Central Jail in Maharashtra were in the spotlight after it was found that Akhil Gogoi, a peasant leader arrested for the anti-Citizenship Act protests in December, and Varavara Rao, a revolutionary Telugu poet arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, had tested positive for coronavirus inside those jails. Prisons in Maharashtra are the worst affected. According to a report in Economic Times, as of today, a total of 774 COVID-19 cases have been reported from 14 jails in Maharashtra, comprising 600 inmates and 174 staff. Nagpur Central Jail, where political prisoners like Varavara Rao, Prof GN Saibaba are imprisoned, has 219 cases, followed by Mumbai Central Jail which has 181, while Akola and Solapur prisons have 72 and 62 cases respectively.
Only, last week, reports came that 86 people lodged at the Anantnag district jail in South Kashmir had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The jail has the capacity for holding 60 persons but it currently has 193 prisoners. About 43% of its inmates have tested positive for the virus. Many of them are political leaders and activists of local Kashmiri political parties, who opposed the abrogation of article 370 last year.
Guwahati Central Jail in Assam has become another hotspot. The total number of COVID-19 cases in the prison swelled to 438, three of them being prison staff, stated Dasarath Das, Assam’s inspector general of prisons. Akhil Gogoi and Sharjeel Imam were the most prominent ones among them.
Reports are now coming in of prison inmates testing positive in Berhampur Circle Jail in Ganjam district, Odisha. The local media reported that 33 under-trial prisoners and 10 prison staff of Berhampur Circle Jail have tested positive. Earlier, as many as 20 prisoners and two staff of the same jail had tested positive on June 6.
India’s overcrowded and unhygienic prisons were always under precarious conditions. Once the virus reached there it became difficult to stop it from spreading like wildfire among the inmates. Apprehending such a situation, the Supreme Court had ordered the states and Union Territories to decongest prisons back in March, when the lockdown was first imposed in order to contain the virus. Many states indeed released some prisoners but thanks to the continuous flow of new inmates and the irregular hearings in courts due to the epidemic, all the prisons are filled up beyond capacity, making the prisoners vulnerable to the contagion.
Alarmed by the reports of rapid spread of the virus in jails in Odisha, Jan Adhikar Manch – a platform of various Odisha-based mass organisations, has sent a letter to the CM of the state, drawing his attention to the condition of prisoners in various jails across the state and demanded quick remedial measures. The open letter was sent late last night (22/07/2020) to the CM, Odisha; DM – Ganjam District; Home Secretary; and DG cum IG of Prisons.
Not only in Berhampur Jail, troubling news also came out of other jails in the state. The Manch came to know from the family members of Shri Nirakar Nayak, an under-trial prisoner in the Surada Sub-jail Ganjam district, that nearly 50% of jail inmates are suffering from fever and cold which are considered as primary symptoms of Covid-19. In the recent past, the media had reported that some under-trials of Rourkela jail had also been affected by Covid-19.
In the open letter to the CM, Jan Adhikar Manch pointed out that:
- As of March, 2020 there were 15789 prisoners in as many as 91 prisons including sub-jails, special women prisons and open prisons of the state. Among these prisoners, over 12195 (77%) were under-trials and 3594 (23%) were convicts.
- As the prisoners are cut off from their family and friends and confined in the four walls of the prison, they are prone to mental distress even under normal circumstances. Recently the State Human Rights Commission, realizing the gravity of the situation, had directed the state government to take immediate steps for amelioration of prison conditions. Naturally, when the state government imposed restrictions on family or relatives meeting prisoners due to the pandemic, inmates became more vulnerable to mental distress. Though the government has introduced e-mulakat in the prisons, in reality many of the jails are not equipped with electronic devices to conduct such meetings. This, and the delay in the judicial procedures due to the epidemic, under-trial prisoners are being deprived of justice in due time, undergoing even more severe mental distress everyday.
Jan Adhikar Manch demanded:
- Conduct Covid-19 tests in all the jails of the state, especially where the inmates are showing primary symptoms like cold and fever.
- Send convicts home on parole to decongest the prisons.
- Make the necessary arrangement with judicial authorities to grant immediate bail to all under trials not charged with serious offences.
- Grant bail to imprisoned women with children on priority basis.
- Grant bail to pregnant women, elderly and differently able persons.
- Conduct weekly health check-ups of inmates to diagnose early symptoms.
- Make immediate arrangements to employ doctors and supporting medical staff to provide adequate health checkups and health facilities to all prisoners.
While the Manch has made these demands in the specific context of the state of Odisha, they are equally valid for all other states, as India reports new highs in the number of new cases every day, and more and more overcrowded prisons become new hotspots of the epidemic.