People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) has written to Chief Justice DN Patel of the Delhi High Court about the worsening conditions in the prisons, in view of the virulent second Covid-19 wave.
There are presently 67 active cases of Covid among jail inmates and eleven among jail staff, including a jail superintendent and two prison doctors. Overall, around 200 prisoners and 300 staff members had tested positive across Delhi jails and there has been very little reporting of the status of health of inmates over the past one week.
The letter addressed to the Chief Justice reads, “Prison inmates and staff are particularly vulnerable to Covid on account of deplorable medical facilities and overcrowding. The Supreme Court and Delhi High Court had recognized this fact, and with the constitution of a High-Powered Committee, 5,124 prisoners had been released on interim bail, parole and on account of remission.”
But following the orders of the same High-Powered Committee on February 17 that directed the return of these prisoners, a large number of prisoners reported to Tihar and Mandoli jails by early-March. As a result, PUDR stated that the prison population has touched more than 20,000 (double its capacity) and presently, there is no definite data on the number of prisoners who are particularly vulnerable to the virus on account of their age, comorbidities and other factors.
Further, the letter points out the inadequate medical infrastructure in jails to cope with the caseload of infections. “There is a dire shortage of hospital beds, ICU facilities, oxygen, plasma and essential drugs, even though ‘frontline workers’ are overstretched in providing care. The status of health infrastructure within prisons is in an even more deplorable condition. This is indicative of the fact that even after measures were taken last year, 293 prison staff and 120 inmates had contracted the infection, with 2 deaths till February 2021,” said the letter.
With the exploding number of cases, PUDR expressed its anxiety about the life and well-being of inmates especially in view of restrictions on court hearings, physical production of inmates and mulaqats (meeting family members). “As these prisoners, convicts and a larger population of undertrials, are in the custody of the State, it is the duty of the State to guarantee their right to life and health,” mentioned the letter.
In pursuance of this, PUDR urged the Chief Justice to issue appropriate directions to the prison authorities and the government to uphold the right to health of prisoners. They are:
1. Initiate prison-wide testing drives of inmates and staff, to assess the extent of the spread of the contagion. This information should be made publicly accessible. Guidelines may be issued to ensure continuous monitoring by providing rapid test kits.
2. Increase the capacity of hospital wards inside prisons by providing more beds, necessary medical equipment, paramedical staff and ambulances. All prison inmates and staff, including medical staff, should be supplied with masks, gloves, PPE kits etc. to prevent further spread of the virus.
3. Immediate release of all vulnerable prisoners, irrespective of the nature of their offence or sentence, who are able to return to their families on interim bail/parole.
a) Vulnerable prisoners include women and children, all prisoners above the age of 50 years, and those with co-morbidities or disabilities.
b) Those unable to furnish sureties should be released on personal bonds.
c) Authorities should ensure safe passage to those released.
- Further ensure that other due process rights of prisoners are not suspended. These include the right to be produced before Magistrates through appropriate means, right to apply for bail and other legal remedies, right to e-mulaqats with families, caretakers, lawyers etc.
The Gauhati High Court, has recently registered a PIL on the issue of vaccinating the prisoners in different jails and sought the State’s response. The Bombay High Court is another State court that has taken up a similar matter, suggesting moving undertrial prisoners to less crowded prisons in order to decongest some prisons. They’ve also directed the State to vaccinate all accused persons above the age of 45 years immediately upon arrest.
The PUDR letter may be read here.