Are Indian Prisons Equipped to Safeguard Prisoners in a Pandemic Situation?

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Image Courtesy: The Sentinel

THE recent COVID Pandemic has again highlighted the human’s congestion issue in the prisons across India that was repeatedly included in several discussions to improve the prisons’ state, Nationwide. Sadly, however, the state administrations never addressed the concern seriously of ever-rising prisoners’ count.

THE Ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has un-geared the global population’s life in ways that no one could have ever comprehended. Several tough- to- tackle challenges emerging every day, rather every hour, are other add-ons to the grieving situation. Amid all confusion and chaos due to the pandemic, there is a population that is last in the queue to get any attention, even in the best of times — individuals lodged in prisons or other such closed institutions nationwide.

Supreme Court, State High Courts, the National Commission for Women, and other relevant bodies, have passed orders and suggested guidelines, including the prisoners’ release, to prevent and control any pandemic situation. The outburst of COVID-19 in several nationwide prisons has raised concerns surrounding the adequacy of these measures.

The Situation

The Prison Statistics of India Report (PSI) has acknowledged overcrowding as a consistently growing concern, yet there seems to be no respite in the near terms. The pandemic guidelines for the prisoners’ release are limited to 14 specific categories, but not enough for a concrete resolution because of the overly occupied prisons and continuously adding new prisoners.

For negating the impact of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, Indian prisons released nearly 65,000 prisoners, decongesting the occupancy rate by an estimated 15%. The change, however, does not factor in new admissions of the inmates. According to an estimate, the National Capital Territory of Delhi has released nearly 4,000 prisoners, while Karnataka freed about 1,500 from various prisons across the state. These desperate releases might have temporarily eased the overcrowding situations of prisons, but those steps could not resolve the tribulations that plague the country’s overall prison system.

The overcrowding aspect of Indian prisons, especially during the pandemic, led to a verdict passed by the Supreme Court to form a High Powered Committee (HPC) for managing the overcrowded prisons and protecting the prisoners. The Court had also directed the State Administrations to file detailed responses suggesting steps for controlling pandemic outbreaks in prisons.

The Statistics

The December 2019 PSI Report, released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), revealed that prisons’ available capacity across India was 403,739 inmates (both male and female) against the actual inmate population 478,600, while the occupancy rate was 118.5%. Besides, the count of the prison across the nation rose by 0.82% from 1,339 in 2018 to 1,350 in 2019.

As on December 31, 2019, the actual capacity of prisons registered a 1.9% gain, rising from 3,96,223 in 2018 to 4,03,739 in 2019, while the actual count of prisoners increased from 466,084 in 2018 to 478,600 in 2019, recording a 2.7% rise. The occupancy rate also accounted for an increase from 117.6% in 2018 to 118.5% in 2019.

By the end of 2019, the actual available capacity in the nation’s Central Jails was highest, with 177,618 inmates, followed by the District Jails with 158,986 and the Sub Jails with 45,071 inmates. The actual capacity in Special Jails, Open Jails, and Women Jails was 7,262, 6,113, and 6,511 inmates, respectively, during the same period.

As on December 31, 2019, Central Jails topped the count of lodged inmates with 220,021 followed by District Jails with 206,217 and Sub Jails with 38,030 lodged prisoners while the count of lodged inmates in Women Jails was 3,652.

Out of the 478,600 prisoners, 458,687 were male inmates, and 19,913 were female prisoners, as of December 31, 2019.

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Source: PSI Report, December 2019

The table below represents the count of COVID-19 positive inmates in selected prisons across the nation, as of June 2020.

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Source: The Hindu, June 2020

The System

The Indian Prison Health System, which is under- equipped to manage the generic health issues, is unprepared to deal with any significant health- related eventuality. The prison authorities, therefore, shift the burden on to the local public health system, thus spreading it too thin for serving the prison population, as well.

The unpreparedness and inadequacies for dealing with in-prison emergencies can span across every nook and corner of the Prison Health System. While it is tricky to overhaul the system overnight, State Administrations must retain their focus on safeguarding the individuals, including prisoners and prison staff, living in the prisons during an eventuality or an outbreak.

Considering nearly ZERO possibility of physical/ social distancing in the prisons, the rate of the spread of an infection, like present COVID-19, is likely to spare none — neither prisoners nor the staff managing the prisons. It is like a ticking time bomb waiting for a massive explosion. It is, therefore, up to the legal judiciaries to take a stand and ensure timely measures that will ease the burden on the prison health system.

The Solutions

Pandemic outbursts are unprecedented occurrences and demand unparalleled solutions, well in advance. The Central and State administrations and the legal judiciaries, which lodge the prisoners in prisons, hold the primary onus to plan and implement the right measures. Few of the steps could help saving lives in prisons during a pandemic outbreak:

  • Instead of limiting offense-based bails, the judiciary must exercise its powers to save lives by granting more bails with doable conditions.
  • Training convicts to initiate and monitor a rigorous daily routine of personal and collective hygiene, while mandating them to provide daily reporting every prisoner’s health conditions in their respective barracks.
  • Prioritizing prisoners as per the treatment required, thus filtering the needy patients to reach the in-prison medical staff.
  • Implementing modern communication devices, like mobile phones, video conferencing devices, to restrict the visitors from inmates’ families and limiting the potential carriers from the community.
  • Keeping isolated prisoners engaged in creative activities, like writing and art materials, musical instruments, board games, to ease pandemic-driven mental pressures and enhance their physical health.
  • State governments must identify closed enclosures such as institutional spaces in universities, schools, colleges, and other places for shifting the unaffected prisoners in the case of a pandemic affecting the prisons.

As discussed above, some of the suggestions/ solutions may not be in accordance with the rule-books but still be fruitful in providing workable resolutions to the Indian prisons during any pandemic.

The Summary

From the above discussion, it is imperative that the preparedness is a priority to stand-by against any impact that an unforeseen pandemic outburst may cost. We must not wait for the fire to break out first and then think of containing it effectively. The laws and the powers must need to step-in to safeguard the lives of those living in a lifelong lock-down. Besides, administrations must understand that all prisoners are humans who equally deserve as much attention and respect as any other individual, and their life is as precious as any other human lives.

As a seasoned Social Researcher, Moumita is actively engaged in social development projects and writing on diverse topics related to social issues.

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