One of the many big coronavirus stories from this week saw Harvey Weinstein getting infected with COVID-19 at a New York correctional facility. This brought to our attention two things: That divine justice makes most of us happy, but also that the deadly virus has now easily found its way into a prominent state prison system in the US. And this American city is not alone. The pressures of coronavirus have reached overcrowded prisons across the world. In countries like Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, emergency measures are being taken to release some prisoners in order to contain the spread of coronavirus. India has now joined the list.
After noting how a “high risk of transmission of COVID-19 [could infect] prison inmates” in India earlier this month, the Supreme Court (SC) put out an order on March 23 for all states to consider releasing some prisoners on parole. “While the Government of India advises that social distancing must be maintained to prevent the spread of COVID-19 virus, the bitter truth is that our prisons are overcrowded, making it difficult for the prisoners [to do so],” said the SC order. According to the latest Prison Statistics India (2018), there are 1,339 prisons, with “approximately 4,66,084 inmates”. In those, the occupancy rate is at 117.6 percent, with some deplorable numbers in Uttar Pradesh (at 176.5 percent) and Sikkim (157.3 percent).
“Apart from them, several correctional officers and other prison staff enter the prisons regularly, and so do visitors (kith and kin of prisoners) and lawyers,” said the order. “There is an imminent need to take steps on an urgent basis to prevent the contagion of COVID-19 virus in our prisons.”
The order requires the convicted or charged prisoners with jail terms of up to seven years to be given parole, in order to avoid overcrowding and decrease the chances of COVID-19 outbreak in those confined spaces. The states, in the meantime, have responded. Maharashtra, for one, submitted an affidavit to release over 5,000 prisoners on bail or medical furloughs across the state. The Tihar Jail, India’s largest prison, announced the release of over 3,000 inmates who are “not hardened”, too. Some states like Delhi and Kerala have already set up isolation wards within their prison premises. The Arthur Road jail in Mumbai, which has 3,700 inmates against the capacity of less than 1,000, has set up 20 isolation cells for those with COVID-19 symptoms. At the same time, some prisons have joined in the efforts to help out the civil society by manufacturing hundreds of masks.
The measure comes at a time when the nationwide panic over the virus is triggering acts of violence, like the recent prison riots at the Dum Dum Central Correctional Home in Kolkata, which killed one and injured eight. Similar instances of prison riots because of restrictions and fears over coronavirus were reported from countries like Italy, Columbia and Brazil too. Earlier this week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) put out guidelines for prisons around the world, where “huge mortality rates” are expected from COVID-19, unless they take immediate action. Some of the measures in the WHO guidelines include airport-style testing and health assessments of staff and new admissions, keeping the staff well-informed and guaranteeing human rights in the facilities.
“We are talking about a highly vulnerable population in overcrowded conditions and once Covid-19 gets inside prisons, everyone will be contaminated very quickly,” Carina Ferreira-Borges, the WHO’s coordinator for prison health, told The Guardian. “In a worst-case scenario this is going to be exploding in prisons and then people will want to get out so there will be a security issue. If people start dying, what will the response be? Prisons must prepare now to respond to epidemics.”
However, some experts think this measure in India might not be sufficient, given the fraught conditions in terms of not just the overcrowding, but also the quality of life within. At the same time, some feel the current decisions should be a part of a regular check-in, and “not only when an emergency arises,” RK Saxena, the retired inspector general of prisons in Rajasthan, told data news website IndiaSpend, who also pointed out how at least the pandemic has put a spotlight on the problems in the Indian prison system. Perhaps the current chain of events could set off more impactful concerns over the deplorable plight of an invisible demographic, and make way for some effective measures for the long run.
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