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Covid-19 in prison: Is India doing enough?

Vijay Raghavan, professor of criminology at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, shares that Indian jails continue to be overcrowded despite efforts for decongestion

A file photo of a jail in Telangana holding 6,063 prisoners against their capacity of 6,848. Photo: AFP
A file photo of a jail in Telangana holding 6,063 prisoners against their capacity of 6,848. Photo: AFP

On 16 March, the Supreme Court asked the states and Union territories on their plans to avoid covid-19 spread in prisons. At the time, most states showed their willingness to release certain categories of prisoners on bail and parole. The idea was to decongest the 1,401 prisons in the country, which, according to 2018 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, were packed with around 450,000 people, nearly 60,000 over the sanctioned capacity.

As of 30 June, nearly 805 jail staffers and inmates have tested positive for covid-19 across jails in the country, as per Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). On 4 July, Mahender Yadav, a former legislator from Delhi, imprisoned in the Capital’s Mandoli Jail in connection with the 1984 riots case, died of covid-19. Yadav became the second prisoner from the Capital to have succumbed to the virus.

Mint spoke to Vijay Raghavan to assess how India is faring in its efforts to control the covid-19 spread inside prisons. Raghavan is a professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. He also leads Prayas, a TISS initiative promoting social work in criminal justice. On paper, he said, India has taken the right steps to decongest prisons. Yet, an on-ground assessment shows the conditions remain dire. Edited excerpts from an interview:

In March, most states and Union territories had expressed willingness to decongest their prisons. Did they live up to their word?

On the direction of the Supreme Court, the states and Union territories had set up a high-powered committee (HPC) to decongest prisons in March. The committees came up with guidelines on the 14 categories of prisoners to be released. Delhi and some states like Karnataka and Chhattisgarh ensured large numbers should be released. But some HPCs didn’t take proactive stands. In Maharashtra, for example, it said only those sentenced to less than seven years could be released. Later through an order dated 11 May, they expanded the category of prisoners who could be released. Overcrowding is more in big cities. Mumbai’s Arthur Road prison is still packed nearly three times the official capacity of 900.

How vulnerable are prisoners in case of a covid-19 spread?

Extremely. Even when one were to judge it by its official capacity, it doesn’t allow for social distancing. You have to reduce 50% of official capacity if you have to do social distancing.

I don’t want to blame the prison department alone because it’s not in their hands. The problem also lies in the role of the court. After the HPCs were formed, nearly 14,000 bail applications were forwarded to trial courts. We are told the courts have rejected a large number of bail applications on factors like case papers aren’t available. They are not available because most of the courts are functioning with 30% staff. Some courts, like the Kalyan session court in Maharashtra, are in a containment zone. So the situation is complex. But the courts need to realize that we live in extraordinary times and in such situations, extra ordinary decisions may have to be taken.

Dozens of prisoners in places like Mumbai’s Arthur Road and Delhi’s Tihar have tested positive. What has been done for them?

Medical teams from government hospitals are visiting prisons on a daily basis. They have also created temporary jails. Maharashtra has nearly 37 such jails in 27 districts. It’s done to quarantine new admissions or those tested positive. The Bombay high court has laid down detailed guidelines for random tests to be done and those with comorbidity also tested.

Is it enough? Is politics playing a role in those allowed to be released?

It’s not. The primary problem is to reduce overcrowding. Bail requests of those accused in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence case have consistently been rejected, even when some of those accused are old and have co-morbid conditions.

The courts have taken a position that those arrested in economic, terror-related and organized crime and under passport act have been excluded. The accused charged under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) or those who fall under "organized" crime offences are excluded. I think classification should have been on the basis of age, comorbidity, pregnancy, disabilities. But for now, the entire categorization is on the basis of the seriousness of offence than the risks the virus poses.

How are things inside prisons?

The thing about prisons is, you never know what’s happening inside because outsiders are not allowed. You can only form a picture based on anecdotal data. We are given to understand that masks and hygiene issues are being taken care of but that may not be enough. I must add that the fear of covid-19 is so strong, it has increased cleanliness inside prisons. Officials know that if the situation becomes abnormal, heads will roll.

Has transparency about prison affairs also reduced because of the pandemic?

Yes. Usually, undertrial prisoners are produced in courts every 14 days. That’s not happening. Earlier, undertrials would be allowed meetings at least once a week and convicts at least once a month. Now, it’s only done via phone or video calls. Meeting with lawyers have stopped. Only phone calls allowed.

How many and what kind of prisoners have been released since?

A report by the National Legal Services Authority in May said nearly 42,000 undertrials and 18,000 convicts were released. But new admissions also take place everyday.

Has the release of convicted criminals and those accused of crimes backfired?

I recently read a headline in a Mumbai newspaper that six notorious robbers were caught attempting robbery again. This is an instance of “recidivism" or repeat offences. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. In India, recidivism is less than 6%. In some developed countries, it’s as high as 50%. There could be two reasons why it’s the case. Either our conviction rates are lower, hence a lot of genuine criminals get off the hook. Or we are arresting a lot of innocent people. Either way, a certain percentage of people can always reoffend. It’s normal in all countries. That has nothing to do with covid-19.

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