More than a month since state Home Minister Anil Deshmukh announced that 11,000 prisoners will be released from state prisons, the government is yet to decide on the recommendations of a high-powered committee constituted on directions of the Supreme Court to decongest overcrowded jails.
At least 20 jails in the state are facing overcrowding that could lead to them becoming a possible coronavirus hotspot. Arthur Road jail in the city houses prisoners three times its capacity of 800, while Yerwada jail in Pune has over 6,000 inmates, and Taloja jail in Navi Mumbai has over 3,000 inmates.
Before the March 24 lockdown, there were nearly 36,000 prisoners housed in jails across the state, including undertrials and convicts. A total of 4,735 prisoners, most of them undertrials facing a maximum punishment of up to seven years, have been released from 37 jails as per the orders of local courts in each district since March 24. Prison officials, however, said that with most prisons in ‘red zones’ — COVID-19 hotspots areas – more steps towards decongesting prisons were required.
Observing that the “bitter truth is that our prisons are overcrowded, making it difficult for the prisoners to maintain social distancing”, the Supreme Court had last month in a suo motu writ petition directed the state governments to constitute a committee for decongestion of prisons. Based on the order, a committee was constituted on March 24.
According to the minutes of the March 25 meeting of the high-powered committee, apart from undertrial prisoners, the recommendation was to release convicted prisoners, whose maximum punishment is seven years or less. It also recommended the release of convicts (except those convicted under special Acts including for money laundering and terror), who are sentenced to over seven years in jail but have returned to prison at least twice on time, when granted parole or furlough on previous occasions. Prison officials say that decongesting jails will require releasing such convicts as well, who form a major portion of the prison population.
An official from the Home Department said that changes to the recommendations, including on the point of release of convicts, were being discussed. When contacted, committee member S N Pandey, director general (prisons), said, “The recommendations have been submitted to the government.”
As a means of controlling a possible coronavirus outbreak in jails, on April 9, the prison department announced the complete lockdown of five jails, including Arthur Road, Byculla, Kalyan, Thane, and Yerwada central prisons. Last week, Aurangabad and Nashik prisons were added to the list. This meant that no new inmate was allowed to enter the jail, while prison staff, too, were accommodated on their premises.
Undertrials sent to judicial custody in Pune are now being sent to a jail in Satara, while new inmates in Mumbai Metropolitan Region are only being allowed in Taloja, after Covid-19 tests.
“The prison department, on its own, has taken steps to prevent an outbreak, including implementing a lockdown in seven of its jails and insisting on COVID-19 tests. There is a requirement to have guidelines by the state government for tests or an SOP on how to prevent an outbreak or steps to be taken if someone tests positive since we are in charge of such a large cluster where the spread of the virus will be difficult to control,” said a senior official.
So far, across India, two prisons in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, have seen a coronavirus outbreak. A prisoner turned away by the Taloja jail last week for want of a test, subsequently tested positive.
Meanwhile, a plea before the Bombay High Court had said the SC order is not being properly implemented in the state. The HC will hear the plea next on Thursday.
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