Even as apprehensions of a second wave of Covid-19 remain, prisons in the state have become congested again with the current population nearing 31,000. While at one point during the lockdown, the inmate population had reduced to nearly 24,000 — a little over its official capacity of 23,217 — nearly half of the state’s prisons are overcrowded again, some housing inmates more than double their capacities.
New arrests due to increase in crimes and denial of bail citing the unlockdown are factors leading to congestion in jails, even as the danger of the pandemic still looms. Prison authorities say that while active cases in jails across the state are now 43 after the initial outbreak in some jails, overcrowding poses a challenge with fears of a reinfection.
Five of the six prisons — Mumbai central (Arthur Road jail), Thane, Kalyan, Byculla women’s prison and Taloja central jail in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region — are overcrowded. At Taloja jail, which had fewer inmates than its capacity of 2,124 before the lockdown, now has 4,080 inmates. The jail, which has inmates including the 10 male accused in the Elgaar Parishad case, Yes Bank founder Rana Kapoor, ICICI Bank-Videocon case’s Deepak Kochhar, continues to receive most of the new arrests from four districts. A temporary prison set up in a school in Kharghar to house new arrests till quarantine period is undergone, has 618 prisoners kept in classrooms.
“Overcrowding in jails makes it difficult for social-distancing to be carried out. We have set up temporary prisons to resolve this issue,” additional director general (prisons) Sunil Ramanand said.
In May, a high-power committee appointed by the state government on directions of the Supreme Court to decongest jails during the pandemic had announced that nearly 50 per cent of the jails’ population — approximately 17,000 — would be released. Prisoners who were granted temporary bail or emergency parole will continue to be out of jails till the Epidemics Act remains in place in the state.
Officials said that the increase in number is due to factors including arrests by law enforcement agencies which were being avoided during the early months of the pandemic. Courts too were taking a lenient view to grant bail to undertrials citing the spread of the disease in jails during the lockdown. In recent orders, courts have taken into account unlockdown and the resuming of normal functioning while denying bail to accused.
Across the state, prisons have so far seen 2,464 Covid-19 cases among inmates and 541 among prison staff. Fifteen deaths — seven inmates and eight staffers — were also recorded. After the first case in Mumbai at Arthur Road jail in May, 184 cases were recorded.
The maximum cases were seen in Yerwada Central prison in Pune with 326 cases detected, three of which are currently active. Prison officials said that 32,378 tests were conducted from May. Regular functioning including visits by family members, lawyers and taking undertrials to courts is still to resume.