“‘Tumhaare naseeb ke upar tum (You are left to your own fate)’ is what we were told by jail officials after the coronavirus outbreak began,” says an undertrial recently released from Mumbai Central jail, better known as Arthur Road jail, where as many as 158 inmates and 26 staffers tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this month.
The undertrial, in his 40s, who had been in the jail since 2018, said even after the outbreak, social distancing norms could not be followed. “We were not informed when the first inmate tested positive. We eventually came to know from staff and other inmates. We were told to maintain distance to prevent its spread. Everyone knew it was impossible. There was so little space, we slept close to each other. Many of us spent sleepless nights, sitting in the barracks to ensure we do not end up sleeping close to an infected person,” the undertrial said. He added that while masks were distributed by a non-profit organisation before the jail was put under lockdown last month, many were torn or had become unwearable by the time the outbreak began.
After the first case came to light, jail authorities requested a team of doctors to examine others who were in the barrack with the infected inmate. “The test results showed 26 jail staffers to be infected. Even if we presume the infection could have been contained within the barrack where the inmate was lodged, the jail staff goes to each barrack to check every day. We all suspected that a lot more were infected than the ones tested,” the undertrial said.
A jail official said as per rules, only those showing symptoms are tested and maintained no other inmates had shown any symptoms since cases were detected. The undertrial alleged many in the jail had fever but were given medicine for dengue or usual antibiotics.
The Home department has announced the release of half the prison population — at least 17,000 inmates. Jail officials said at least 1,000 prisoners from Arthur Road jail will be released but it may still leave the prison overcrowded, which has a capacity of 804 but houses 2,800 prisoners. The Home department has issued a notification empowering district collectors to take possession of buildings and designate them as temporary prisons. A query to prison officials regarding any such request made to the district authorities did not yield a response.
Overcrowded city jails, including Arthur Road and Kalyan jail, have seen hunger strikes and protests by inmates even before the outbreak. All jails stopped prison visits by lawyers and family members since March. Undertrials were also not being produced before courts via videoconference as only urgent matters are being heard by court.
“We wrote applications to the jail authorities requesting that we should be heard by a court through video-conference or by the government to inform them about the conditions we were living in. We could not speak to our family members, could not approach court or judges. Instead, we were assaulted,” the undertrial said. Sources confirmed that inmates at both Kalyan jail and Arthur Road jail who had initiated hunger strikes and protests were shifted to Taloja jail last month. The superintendent charge at Kalyan jail was also given to another official after the protest.
Family members have also complained that they have been unable to get any information about the inmates. Family members of a 27-year-old, who has been in Arthur Road jail since the past six months, said they last met and spoke to him in March. “After the lockdown, I called the prison landline and was told everything is fine. As there was no option to get in touch with my son, I trusted the prison authorities. When we read about the outbreak, I got scared and have been calling since. There has been no response on the landline,” said his father.
While the Supreme Court had directed that arrangements be made for inmates to communicate with family members, jail officials said they had started allowing inmates two-minute phone calls. Many relatives, however, said due to the sheer number of inmates, their turn is yet to come. “I sit by the phone, even carrying it to the bathroom. I just want to hear my son’s voice and be assured that he is fine,” the inmate’s father said.
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