Most jails in the country are overcrowded and inmates, a majority of who are undertrials, could face a major threat over the coming days
Ashok Kumar | Clarion India
MUMBAI – While Covid-19 cases are soaring in India, there are fears that the deadly virus may be spreading across jails in the country, most of which are overcrowded and largely unmonitored for the disease.
The 1,400-odd jails in the country have a capacity for 380,000-plus prisoners, but most are overflowing with inmates, many of who are undertrials, waiting for years for the sentence.
According to official figures, of the 450,000 prisoners in jails in 2017, more than two-thirds were undertrials, who have to wait for years for the cases to be heard.
Worried about the largely unmonitored spread of the disease in prisons, a PIL was recently filed in the Bombay high court by petitioners including the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). Responding to the Bombay High Court, the Maharashtra government said nearly 600 inmates and about 170 prison staff had tested positive.
The Nagpur central prison was the worst hit with over 200 inmates and nearly 60 staff testing positive.
“While some of the political prisoners including Varavara Rao, the 80-year-old poet have been transferred to hospitals, there are thousands of other ordinary prisoners who are exposed to Covid-19,” Lara Jesani, an advocate and a senior member of the PUCL, told Clarion India on July 18. “There is an alarming increase in the number of prisoners across India getting infected with the Covid-19 virus.”
According to her, the central and state governments should immediately launch a massive campaign to test prisoners and ensure their safety. And those with symptoms should be provided with treatment. “If these measures are not taken, there will be mass casualties in the jails,” she warns.
Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail has also seen more than a hundred inmates and prison staff being infected with the virus. The jail, meant for 800-odd prisoners, is usually packed with more than 2,000 persons. Other jails in and around Mumbai including in Kalyan and Thane are similarly overcrowded.
Activists bemoan that many of the inmates in the overcrowded prisons will be infected by the deadly Covid-19 virus if immediate preventive measures are not taken by the authorities.
The Maharashtra government had earlier announced that 17,000 inmates would be released from various prisons to decongest them in view of the pandemic. About 10,000 prisoners were given temporary bail or emergency parole till recently. The state’s 60 jails, with a capacity of 24,000 prisoners, had more than 35,000 inmates.
According to the Mumbai City District Legal Services Authority, it had received more than 2,800 applications from accused persons seeking release because of Covid-19. More than 2,300 undertrials have been released so far.