The Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court recently suggested that the state government should transfer prisoners from overcrowded jails to the Paithan open prison in Aurangabad to take care of cattle and cultivation. The court made this suggestion while granting emergency parole to eight of the nine inmates of the open prison.
A division bench of Justice Ravindra V Ghuge and Justice Bhalchandra U Debadwar was hearing writ petitions filed by inmates of Paithan open prison, challenging orders of the jail authorities that rejected their pleas for emergency parole amid the pandemic.
On May 8, 2020, the state Home department had amended the Maharashtra Prisons (Furlough and Parole) Rules, 1959, allowing prison authorities to temporarily release inmates to control Covid-19 spread in jails. The government had left it to a high-powered committee to decide on implementation of the circular. The committee had recommended that undertrials, booked for offenses other than under certain special laws, be released as a temporary measure.
Advocate P P More and S P Chate, appearing for the petitioners, submitted that the jail authorities rejected their pleas for parole despite most of them being in prison for five to 10 years.
More said that eight of the nine prisoners have not availed either parole or furlough during their entire stay in prison. He added that it would be discriminatory if the petitioners are not granted emergency parole on similar grounds based on which hundreds of other inmates had benefitted during the pandemic.
However, the chief public prosecutor, representing the state government, said that the authorities need to give clarity about the strength of inmates in open prisons. He said that Paithan open prison has 827 acres of land within a periphery of 70 sq km. Of these, 325 acres is under cultivation for sugarcane and other crops, and earns the government crores of rupees. He questioned that while 220 cattle are used for agricultural activities at the prison, whether “emptying” it would be justified.
The court was informed that as on date, there are only 41 prisoners in Paithan open prison, which can accommodate 500 inmates. The prosecutor said that he would speak to the additional chief secretary (Home) regarding maintaining at least one-third of the strength of the prison.
He added that clarity is also required on whether it would be in the interest of society for convicts to be released on emergency parole, as they would not return to jail until the circular is amended or repealed.
The court noted that it “cannot ignore” the fact that Paithan open prison requires more inmates for cultivation purposes and safeguarding the health of the cattle. “The prisons need to have sufficient number of prisoners who can be utilised for such purposes, by keeping in view the object of containing the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic and, for which, physical distancing will have to be maintained. Those convicts who are not entitled for the benefit of emergency parole/furlough can also be utilised for the said purpose.”
On “discrimination” among prisoners who have already availed emergency parole and those still awaiting the same, the bench said: “This issue can also be tackled by the state government by transferring some eligible prisoners to places where their strength has dwindled on account of many being released on emergency parole or under the orders of this court, so as to decongest prisons…”