The jails in Punjab need to be further decongested in view of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the “ideal situation in present scenario” will be to bring down number of inmates to 50 per cent of the authorized capacity, a high powered committee (HPC) has suggested.
The three-member HPC, comprising Punjab State Legal Services Authority (PSLA) chairman Justice R K Jain, Additional Chief Secretary (Jails) R Venkat Ratnam and Additional Director General of Police (Jails) Praveen Kumar Sinha, has “felt” that “it is desirable to further reduce the prison population by around 4000-5000 prisoners”.
The Committee, formed following Supreme Court directions, in its latest meeting held on July 31 also recommended that inmates released on parole should continue to remain on parole. The powers granted to Superintendent of Jails – to take a call on extension of parole – till the end of August be extended till November 30, it recommended adding that arrangement should continue further till Epidemic Diseases Act remains in force.
As on July 30, out of around 4500 members of the jail staff, around 3,900 (or 85 per cent) were tested for novel Coronavirus, out of which 47 returned positive. In the random sampling of around 9,000 prisoners, 130 had tested positive by that date.
Punjab has nine Central Jails, six District Jails, four Special Jails and five Sub Jails with the total sanctioned capacity to house 23,800 inmates.
More than 11,000 prisoners were released following the recommendations of HPC in its meetings held in March and May. A convict is released on parole while an under-trial is released on bail. Of the 11,000 who were released, at least 6000 were convicts and remaining were under-trial prisoners.
Meanwhile, 9,391 new prisoners were sent to six special jails located in Barnala, Patti, Bathinda, two in Ludhiana (including one for women), and Pathankot. In the three-tier testing by Punjab Jails department, any new prisoner (under-trial) is subjected to testing before being sent to Special Jail. In second tier, after completion of 14 days’ quarantine period in a Special Jail, the prisoner is tested again and if the results returns tests negative, he or she is sent to regular jail. The prisoner shifted to regular jail is again qaurantined for 14 days, tested after that and, if negative, is shifted to regular barracks.
Punjab has notified sub-jails at Malerkotla, Pathankot, Moga and Fazilka as Level-1 Covid Care Centres for the treatment of prisoners testing positive.
The HPC noted that the jails notified provided a “secure environment” and pointed out that “the Committee was informed that with the increasing number of Covid cases in prisons, the police and jail administration are finding it difficult to provide adequate security at the regular Covid Care Centres established by the Health Department; the biggest problem was providing security to the prisoners lodged in the Covid wards, as no security personnel could be posted inside these wards, and therefore the risk of escape is very high”.
In the minutes of meeting held on July 31 accessed by The Indian Express, the Committee is aiming at an “ideal situation” where prison population should not be more than 50 per cent of the authorized capacity.
“To further reduce the prison population, ways and means for releasing under-trial prisoners will have to be explored, as only 20 per cent prisoners are convicts and they are required for day to day administration of prisons. After examining the various issues involved, the Committee felt that it is desirable to further reduce the prison population by around 4000-5000 prisoners,” read the minutes of the meeting.
A senior jails department functionary said convicts were required for jobs such as preparation of food and cleanliness works. “The release of any more convicts would lead to jails’ functioning coming to a standstill,” added the official.
The Committee also observed that it would not be desirable to re-admit prisoners released on bail and parole in the interest of safety of the prisons and for achieving the objective of decongestion. The Committee recommended that the concerned judicial officers or magistrates may consider extending interim bail of all the under-trial prisoners released thus.
Extension in parole
The Committee recommended that prisoners released on parole should continue to remain on parole and that delegation of authority for granting parole to respective Jail Superintendents be extended for another three months till November 30. Last year, Punjab had enhanced the parole period of convicts from 12 weeks to 16 weeks in a year, as a goodwill gesture to mark 550th birth anniversary of founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak Dev. The 16-week parole was allowed to be availed in two tranches on quarterly basis. However, in the wake of the pandemic, the HPC decided that convicts can avail 16 week parole in one go and it could be further increased till the Epidemic Diseases Act remains in force.
Video conferencing facility in prisons
Observing that “the present Covid situation in the country is volatile, uncertain, complex and dynamic” and which may “continue for a few more months”, the HPC recommended to Punjab government to “urgently take measures towards creation of suitable and sufficient video conferencing facilities at jail-end (including other required equipment, infrastructure and manpower) to ensure that jails are ready for trials and other court processes to take place through VC”.
Pre-requisites to release under-trials on bail
The HPC has recommended that under-trials facing three or less cases under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, barring those arrested in commercial quantity cases, be considered for bail. It has also recommended that all cases under section 354 (Assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty) of IPC may be considered for release [on bail] except those where victim is below 15 years of age or any section of POCSO Act has been applied. It further recommended that any under-trial prisoner who is accused of offences of murder, attempt to murder, Arms Act, kidnapping for ransom, assault on public servant or for intimidation of informerss/witnesses in any of the cases registered against him or any under-trial who is a foreign national, faces case of acid attack case, under UAPA, Explosive Substances Act, 376 (Sexual assault) and under section 379-B (snatching and use of force) IPC should not be considered for release on bail.
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