Covid-19: What happens to prisoners, now?

Iran has released thousands, measures to check infection in other countries, but how will India cope?


In a pivotal scene in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Joker puts bombs on two ferries; one carrying regular passengers and one carrying convicted criminals. He hands over the detonators to each bomb to people on the other ferry. He issues an ultimatum, that if one group doesn’t blow up the other, he will detonate both bombs and kill everyone. The purpose of this exercise was to show that humans are not only inherently flawed and invested in self-preservation, but also that in times of crisis, we are a species capable of tearing ourselves apart. More importantly, would people want to save convicts and prisoners? 

We are faced with a similar choice now in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. How do we protect our prisoners? Do we leave them to their fate because of their past sins? What about those who are awaiting trial or in prison only because they are too poor to afford bail?

Sanitation and hygiene standards are already known to be poor in our prisons. This could lead to any disease spreading quickly. Last year, when we had held a public hearing titled Qaid ke Pare, where women prisoners spoke about their ordeals in prison, we had discovered many horrifying realities including many prison staffers resorting to illegally feeding prisoners less to keep them weak and compliant. Soni Sori, an activist who was a political prisoner, told us how inmates were often forced to pick out insects from their food before eating. Given such conditions, is there any hope for people behind bars?

On the other hand, prisons are where inmates are anyway kept in isolation. Corona virus would have to be brought in from outside. Should there be a complete lockdown? Should there be a temporary freeze on visits by family and friends of inmates till the Covid-19 pandemic subsides? What if the disease if brought in by prison staff who may have caught the infection from a family member? Should we set prisoners free? What if the freed prisoners go on to commit more crime? There are several ethical and humanitarian matters at stake and no easy answers. Different countries are coping differently.

Iran that had at least 1,300 dead and over 18,000 infected in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic has released over 85,000 prisoners. Some 10,000 more are likely to receive pardon. Meanwhile, the British government has advised people vising prison inmates to exercise caution and if possible avoid visits after two cases of virus infected prisoners were reported, one each from Manchester and High Down.

Mississippi Today reported that the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has issued the following guidelines to be followed by prisons in the state of Mississippi in the United States:

  • Having inmates use the sick call system to access medical staff, and quarantining or isolating symptomatic patients.
  • Screening correctional staff’s temperature. Staff with a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher will not be allowed to work.
  • Installing additional hand sanitizer stations throughout facilities and in dining halls.
  • Suspending programming and approved leave for inmates, such as travel to funerals or wakes.
  • Limiting transfers between MDOC facilities.
  • Suspending inmate work crews, out-of-state travel for people on probation or parole, and work for restitution center residents.

These appear to be common sense guidelines. Now, let us have a look at what our prison manuals say about handling epidemics.

According to the Maharashtra Prison Manual, “The Chief epidemic diseases which are likely to occur in Prisons are :— Cholera, Diarrhoea, Small-pox, Cerebrospinal meningits, influenza, relapsing fever, dysentery, pneumonia, Plague, beri-beri, mumps, measles and scurvy. The Superintendent shall enforce all preventive measures in consultation with the Medical Officer.” While it obviously does not mention the Corona Virus as it didn’t exist before 2019, the same Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are applicable.

The primary responsibility rests with the Medical Officers and Superintendents of Prisons. The  Medical Officer in charge is supposed to “report to the Superintendent in writing the appearance of any epidemic or contagious disease likely to assume an epidemic form, and any irregularities in the hospital or any other part of the prison which may come to his knowledge in connection with his medical duties or the sanitary arrangements in force, making at the same time necessary suggestions and shall also report to the Surgeon General, the Director of Public Health and the Director, Bombay Bacteriological Laboratory, Parel, the appearance of epidemic disease of a contagious nature.” He should also “give directions in writing for immediately separating from the other prisoners any prisoner having, or suspected of having, infectious, contagious, or mental disease, and for cleansing, disinfecting, or destroying any infected places, bedding or clothing.”

As far as SOPs go, the manual says, “If within a week after the first case of Cholera, cerebrospinal, meningitis or plague has shown itself in a prison, two or more cases occur, it shall be considered that the disease has assumed an epidemic form and information shall at once be sent to the Inspector General, the Regional Dy. I. G. of Prisons and the neighbouring Prisons, if necessary.”

It adds, “In the event of epidemic disease being present in the vicinity of a prison, care shall be taken, as far as possible, to prevent any communication taking place between the inmates of the prison and the infected locality.” The manual also says, “More than the ordinary attention shall be paid to all the usual conservancy arrangements of the Prison, and the Medical Officer shall recommend such alterations in the prison diet as may be calculated to guard prisoners from liability to the attacks of epidemic diseases. As few sick as possible ought to be collected in the Jail hospital, all trifling ailments being treated in barracks.”

In case of the possibility of inmates arriving from epidemic infected districts, the manual says, “If any epidemic disease is present in the district, care shall be taken that all prisoners received from such districts are carefully examined and made to wash themselves and their clothing thoroughly, disinfected on admission into prison. They shall then be rigorously segregated for a period of not less than ten days in such manner as the Medical Officer may deem proper. The assistance of the district authorities should be asked with a view to all prisoners being admitted sufficiently early in the day to allow washing and disinfection on the same day.”

The prison manual also lays guidelines about isolation of infected inmates saying, “The utmost care must be taken that all prisoners employed in cleaning a ward in which a case of epidemic diarrhoea, cholera, or plague has occurred or who have been in contact with the patient after the first symptoms have appeared, are retained under medical observations in a separate building, where available, in a manner that shall effectually prevent their mingling, on any pretext with other prisoners who have not been so employed, special care being taken that they are bathed and fed apart, and their excreta are separately collected and are disinfected before removal, and that their clothing are thoroughly disinfected before they are again allowed to mix with other prisoners.”

There are also detailed guidelines about setting camping grounds for segregation of the infected from the healthy inmates and guards, waste disposal and sanitation. The relevant portions are available in Chapter-4 (Prison Hospital) Section 2 (Non-Statutory rules) from point 23 to 46 of the Maharashtra Prison Manual and may be read here: 

Let us also look at Assam, where Detention Camps operate out of makeshift facilities in prisons. The functioning of these detention camps so far has been as per the Assam Prison Manual. Section VI that lays down duties of the Medical Officer says, “If any epidemic or unusual sickness prevails, or when the seriousness of cases requires it, he shall visit the jail as many times daily as necessary.” According to Chapter 2 (Establishment of Prison) 3 (2) (c) of a draft of the Assam Prisons Act, 2013, “due to the outbreak of any epidemic disease within any prison, or for any other reason, it is desirable to temporarily provide for some alternative accommodation for any inmates.”



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