The Central Jail in Guwahati, with over 1,000 inmates, has turned into a Covid-19 hotspot with at least 435 inmates testing positive so far. The authorities have now set up a Covid care centre within the premises and are considering the release of more inmates to decongest the prison.
A senior government official told The Indian Express that 10 out of 31 jails in Assam have been affected by the outbreak and about 535 inmates have tested positive. The official said the Guwahati jail, which has political prisoners and former insurgent leaders among its inmates, is the worst-hit.
In an order on a suo motu PIL Thursday, the Gauhati High Court ordered that “the best of measures available with the State of Assam be employed to give qualitative treatment to the jail inmates across the State so that no further damage is caused”.
IG, Prisons, Dasarath Das said Friday that the authorities have recommended to the High-Powered Committee — formed on Supreme Court’s direction to states to decongest prisons — that 376 more prisoners from eight prisons, including 111 from Central Jail, be released.
A jail official said the first Covid-19 case in the Guwahati jail was reported in the first week of June when one person in a group of seven new inmates tested positive. The other six tested negative.
From June 5 to June 17, the jail was a containment zone. From June 24, fresh prisoners were brought in and one inmate who came on June 27 tested positive on July 1. After that, the jail witnessed a spike in cases. Four staff members also tested positive.
Jail superintendent Ranjit Baishya said symptomatic patients have been admitted to Guwahati Medical College and Hospital (GMCH) and other Covid facilities, while the asymptomatic — over a 100 — are being treated at the care centre in the jail. Around 182 inmates who have been cured are back in jail, he said.
Among those who tested positive are activist and leader of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) Akhil Gogoi and his associates Bittu Sonowal and Dhairjya Konwar, JNU student and anti-CAA activist Sharjeel Imam and former Bodo insurgent leader Ranjan Daimary.
KMSS general secretary Konwar, now recovered and out on bail, said, “The jail is congested. Two-three people sleep under one mosquito net. Social distancing is impossible. The government should have planned better to tackle the spread in jails.” When new inmates started coming in, Konwar and others had protested. “One of our demands was that since there was no rapid testing facility to test newcomers, authorities should make a temporary jail and keep them there,” Konwar said.
The Superintendent said they are carrying out rapid-testing of all inmates coming in now.
At Nagaon Central Jail, doctor-in-charge Dr Purnananda Bora had tested positive and has now recovered. He said that till Wednesday, 53 inmates have tested positive. Senior officials told The Indian Express that the situation is currently under control.
Biswajit Pegu, DC of Kamrup (Metro) district, under which Guwahati falls, said every inmate and staff member has been tested and hence, a large number of inmates reported positive. “A large number of those who tested positive are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic. Almost half of those who tested positive are cured. The standing instruction is whosoever is coming in needs to be rapid-tested — if negative, he/she will be in observation for 48 hours till RT-PCR results come,” he said.
“At GMCH, 25 beds have been reserved for jail inmates and an ambulance is at the jail to shift any symptomatic patient,” he added.
On July 18, CM Sarbananda Sonowal directed the constitution of a three-member panel in each district to monitor and advise on Covid-19 spread in jails. The Assam Human Rights Commission took cognizance of a complaint by Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Debabrata Saikia, regarding the spread in Guwahati jail and asked the Chief Secretary and IG Prisons to submit a report by August 5.
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