While disposing of a batch of pleas seeking various reliefs for prisoners in view of the Covid-19 outbreak in jails across Maharashtra, the Bombay High Court on Thursday accepted assurances made by the state government and directed it to conduct random Covid-19 tests of inmates as per requirement. The Prison authorities are directed to refer for testing any inmate who shows symptoms for Covid-19.
The Court also asked the authorities to notify details of nearly 35 temporary jails it has formed across nearly 27 districts, which are also to be used as makeshift quarantine or Covid-19 care centers, on its website.
The Court directed the state government to implement all the measures it had suggested for containing outbreaks in prisons and other correctional homes through modified draft guidelines based on recommendations made by the petitioners.
Moreover, the HC on Thursday said that family members of the inmates be informed about the health status and said, “Every possible endeavour be made by the prison authorities to scrupulously follow guidelines issued by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Centre and state governments from time to time regarding safety measures and the standard operating procedures be revised from time to time.”
The Court also said that the temporary prisons, which are to be used as quarantine centers, should also follow ICMR guidelines and said that additional forces be deployed at all the prisons and temporary prisons.
A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice M S Karnik passed a judgment, through videoconference, on pleas moved by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), through senior counsel Mihir Desai and advocates Isha Khandelwal and Kritika Agarwal, and other petitioners, Geeta Bharat Jain, Archana Rupawate, and Devmani Shukla.
The pleas had sought from the state to ensure the inmates have free access to protective gear, including N95 masks, hand sanitisers and soaps. The NGO had claimed that families of prisoners were in a state of panic after reports of inmates from Arthur Road Jail and Satara prison being infected came out, adding that they had no way to know the health status of their relatives.
Responding to the pleas, the state prisons department had said that until June 13, three prisoners – one each in Yerawada, Taloja and Dhule jails – were found Covid-19 positive after they died. Moreover, an undertrial at Taloja jail who died by suicide on May 27 tested positive later.
The state government had also informed that till June 13, 1,681 swab tests for Covid-19 had been conducted across prisons in Maharashtra, with 269 prisoners and 73 jail staffers testing positive. Of the total infected, 115 inmates and 51 staffers members had recovered.
Observing that the report submitted by state prisons department on jails ‘reveals very sorry state of affairs,” the HC on June 16 had sought to know from the Maharashtra government details on the number of undertrials or convicts presently lodged in all correctional homes across Maharashtra, number of inmates over 60 years of age, diseases, if any, from which such senior citizen inmates are suffering from and capacity of each correctional home to accommodate undertrials or convicts.
The state prisons department on June 23 informed HC, through its draft modified guidelines that, along with voice- and video-calling facilities, jail inmates will now also have access to email communication with their lawyers with the prior permission of the superintendent of the jail.
Moreover, on June 26, the state said that it plans to make inmates with comorbid conditions undergo rapid antigen testing depending on the availability of the test kits. The state also said that there are 1414 inmates across all prisons who are 60 years and above and 425 of them have comorbidities.
On June 26, after concluding the hearing, the Court asked the prison department to regularly update its website on the status of inmates and reserved its order on the pleas.
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