Maharashtra prisons have seen 2,505 Covid-19 cases since April last year. Sunil Ramanand, Additional Director General of Police (Prisons), speaks about how prison staff and inmates dealt with the pandemic. Excerpts from an interview with Sadaf Modak.
At one point, there were 100 cases detected in Mumbai central prison. There were concerns of prisons emerging as hotspots but the reported numbers were low subsequently. Can you tell us about how it managed the pandemic?
The first step we took was to bring changes to rules of emergency parole to release certain categories of convicts and grant temporary bail in minor offences to undertrials as per the recommendations of the high powered committee. We were able to release more than 10,000 inmates, bringing down the inmate population from 38,000 to over 27,000. Over 30 temporary prisons were also set up for those arriving in jails which also doubled up as Covid Care Centres for inmates testing positive. This minimised the entry of Covid-19 inmates. Another aspect was to ensure that inmates do not feel restless while lodged in jail since prison visits by family members and lawyers as well as court appearances had to be suspended. We provided over 60 cellphones across the state through which inmates were allowed to make video calls and phone calls to their family members outside. In some prisons, we implemented a complete lockdown where staffers too did not go out of the premises in shifts for a period of 15 days to a month. I am thankful to the prison staffers and inmates for putting up a brave front. Apart from Kalyan prison where there was an incident where inmates protested, we did not have issues anywhere else. In fact, it was the other way around where inmates were reluctant to go to civic hospitals since the numbers were surging outside.
With the easing of restrictions, normalcy is being restored including resuming of physical court hearings and visits to jail. What are the concerns of the prison administration now?
One would also have to gauge the impact based on the number of deaths. We handled more than 50,000 inmates during the pandemic and there were seven casualties among prisoners and eight among staffers. We know Covid-19 better than we knew it a year ago. Our responses are better now. Yet, there are some long-term changes needed as well. I have written to the government for changes in the Criminal Procedure Code to enable holding trials through video-conferencing with inmates participating from jails wherever possible so that they can be completed sooner. This came up due to the pandemic where trials had to be stalled but can be a long-term change too.
Maharashtra prisons have seen many incidents of custodial violence, including the death of an inmate in Byculla jail and recent suicide of a convict in Nashik…
Mental health in prisons is always an issue. Due to long incarcerations, prisoners tend to face these issues. The idea is to ensure that anyone found facing issues of mental health should be attended to promptly. We focus on ensuring that the time an inmate spends in jail should be spent in a quality manner with access to libraries, facilities like open air gyms. It is a continuous process guided by the principle that an inmate is sent to jail as a punishment and not for punishment. We cannot go by isolated incidents….
But, the incidents of violence referred to are where allegations are made against staff members…
There is a proposal pending before the Maharashtra government that I submitted seeking lateral deputation from the police department to postings in prison from the rank of superintendent as well as other ranks. In prisons, there is nothing like a non-executive charge and it is not an easy job for the staffers. The duty takes a toll on them as well. The proposal is to have some personnel from the police department to head the central jails, let them get in with new ideas. I am confident that it will have a positiveimpact.
There is also the issue of disproportionate inmate population to actual strength of jails including the Arthur Road jail in Mumbai.
Most of these prisons which are overcrowded are in the middle of cities. It is not just an exercise of shifting prisons but expanding them to enhance capacities. In Mumbai, we had identified a land in Mankhurd. The land was five acres but some parts of it have mangroves hence that could not be used. We have now short-listed land in Anushakti Nagar nearby where a prison housing 5,000 inmates can be built.
You have written a book on crime fiction…
Well, I began writing when I was advised bed rest after a back injury when I was posted in the SRPF. I have an engineering background and was not exactly a reader of fiction so during this time I began reading voraciously. I found inspiration in a few books I read and then began writing whenever I could, early morning and post work leading to the book, Cops in a Quagmire