The Bombay High Court on Tuesday asked the Maharashtra government to respond to its concerns over surge in Covid-19 cases across prisons in the state and provide suggestions on measures to prevent the same.
This came after the state government informed the HC that currently about 35, 124 prisoners are lodged across 47 jails in Maharashtra, which have capacity to house nearly 24, 032 inmates. The state government also informed the Court that there are 188 active Covid-19 cases in the prisons at present.
The Court, while raising concerns over surge in Covid-19 spread in prisons, sought to know from the state government as to whether RT-PCR test of accused persons can be conducted prior to admitting in prison along with their vaccination ( in case of age above 45 years) and also asked if the undertrials can be produced before the court through videoconferencing
A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish S Kulkarni was hearing suo motu (on its own) PIL initiated by HC last week based on news reports highlighting alarming rise in Covid-19 cases in the last two months in the prisons across Maharashtra.
The court had asked the state government prison authorities to produce by the next hearing details of the Covid-19 status of prison staff and inmates, and measures taken or proposed to be taken to control the Covid-19 spread and decongest jails.
On Tuesday, Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni submitted an affidavit filed by Dr. Chhering Dorje, Special Inspector General of Police (Prisons).
Kumbhakoni told the Court that even though the jail authorities are taking steps towards implementation of a decision by the High-Powered Committee (HPC) constituted last year, ‘for reasons and grounds beyond the control of prison authorities,’ the inmates from some prisons have been infected with Covid.
“This is principally because various lower (trial) Courts throughout the State have been refusing to release prisoners on bail, temporary bail, etc. in view of the facts and circumstances of the respective cases,” the affidavit said.
The affidavit further stated that ‘fresh exercise’ is required to be undertaken to explore the possibility of newly admitted prisoners to be released as per HPC directions and the same will result into decongestion of the jails, at least to ‘sizable extent.’
Kumbhakoni informed the Court that the prison authorities have approached various departments of the state government with proposals for creating new jails to permanently increase the capacity in prisons. He said that six such proposals are actively being concerned by the authorities and sought appropriate directions to them for speedy consideration of proposals in current situation
He also submitted that last year, the state government had created 36 ‘temporary prisons’ in the premises of educational institutions and hostels and they had to be given back for educational activities. However, with the ongoing covid outbreak and as institutions have stopped their activities, the prison authorities started reclaiming these premises to convert them into temporary prisons and 14 such institutions have already been reclaimed, he said.
Kumbhakoni further submitted that nearly 8 prison staff members across 7 prisons died due to Covid. “We had very good control at one point of time. Meantime, we got relaxed, I must concede. Now we are back to taking strict measures to contain the spread.” He also said that a vaccination programme was already underway for eligible prisoners as per guidelines issued by the Central authorities.
The bench said that while the jail staff could be carrying the infection inside the prisons as the inmates are not going outside and the same should be looked into.
While perusing the state affidavit, the Court noted that Yerawada central prison was ‘most populated’ with a current inmate population of 6170, despite having a capacity of housing nearly 2449 prisoners and said that the decongestion at such jails requires to be considered.
The bench also asked the state to provide details about crime rate and number of persons arrested for various offences after April 13 ‘break the chain’ circular of the state government and inform whether there was any drop in the crime rate compared to the first twelve days of April, 2021. The bench also sought to know if a large number of inmates could be granted emergency parole to decongest prisons.
The bench then asked the state government if the inmates can be transferred to open prisons having dwindling populations as suggested by the Aurangabad bench of HC earlier this month.
It also sought suggestions from the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) and senior counsel Mihir Desai, who had petitioned HC last year on similar issue and their plea was disposed of with slew of guidelines issued by the Court.
Seeking responses and suggestions from the parties to the case, HC posted further hearing on PIL to Thursday, April 22.