MORE THAN a month after Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh announced that 11,000 prisoners will be released to decongest prisons and prevent COVID-19 from spreading in the overcrowded jails, only half that number have been released till date. A notification for the release of the prisoners too has not been issued by the government as yet.
The delay has now come to haunt the administration with at least 103 inmates of Arthur Road jail, one of the most crowded prisons in the country, testing positive for COVID-19.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Deshmukh said, “We have released nearly 5,500 prisoners already. In the next two to three days, those who are eligible for the process will be released.” On fears of the virus spreading among inmates, the minister said, “Those who tested positive were from the same barrack. We are conducting tests on others as well but it has not yet reached the other barracks.”
While Arthur Road jail has a capacity for 800 inmates, it is home to 2,800 inmates, most of them undertrials. Soon after the announcement by Deshmukh on March 26, Home department officials had said that undertrials, convicts who have in the past been granted parole and furlough would be eligible for the “emergency parole”.
These parameters were laid down after a meeting of the high powered committee set up by the state government following the Supreme Court’s order to decongest prisons.
The notification, using which prisoners could seek “emergency parole”, however, has not yet been issued by the government. An official said that the necessary paperwork had been sent to the top bureaucracy by the committee, but it had not seen any movement thereafter. To worsen matters, the term of Additional Chief Secretary (Appeals and Security) Srikant Singh, who had been in charge of prisons, ended on April 30. Currently, Principal Secretary (Water supply and Sanitation) Sanjay Chahande is holding additional charge of the portfolio.
A prison department official said, “While the granting of parole and furlough for convicts is largely dependent on prison officials, when it comes to undertrials, they have to be granted bail by the courts. So while there has been a delay in the notification, ultimately the courts will also have to grant them bail for them to be released.”
In Mumbai, most courts are considering the minutes of the committee’s meeting held on March 25, while deciding bail applications of undertrials citing the coronavirus outbreak or in some cases, even when arguing on merits of the case.
A petition filed before the Supreme Court this week and one being heard by the Bombay High Court says that the committee’s category of prisoners is ‘contrary to the broad parameters’ laid down by the SC’s order.
In Delhi for instance, women were recommended for bail irrespective of their offence, and undertrials facing up to 10 years in jail were also to be considered. In Allahabad, accused granted bail but unable to furnish surety too were directed to be released on PR bond.
A representation made before the Maharashtra committee by Prayas, a field action project of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, working with prisoners, had suggested that prisoners with severe disabilities and serious illnesses can be considered for release, like a woman lodged in Kalyan jail with blood disorder and a man will 80 per cent disabilities in Thane jail.
“The Undertrial Review Committees set up in each district can also recommend release of up to 14 categories of prisoners, including women offenders and those who are sick or require specialised medical treatment as per the Standard Operating Procedures set by NALSA. This could have been done immediately to decongest jails as unless the categories are expanded, overcrowding cannot be reduced,” said Vijay Raghavan, project director of Prayas.
A prison official said, “In light of what has happened at Arthur Road jail, in every district we will be asking the review committee to intervene in order to recommend more and more inmates be released on bail by the judiciary.”
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