Prisoners freed to decongest Tihar return to crime

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On April 30, Balbir Sharma, a man with 36 cases of theft, robbery and snatching registered against him was released from Tihar jail as part of the prison’s move to decongest its premises to contain the spread of Covid-19. Five days later, he was arrested for allegedly robbing a man of his cell phone and scooter.

A day before Sharma‘s release, Monu Sharma, a man with eight criminal cases, was also released in a bid to decongest the jail complex. Six days later, on May 5, he was arrested for stealing an electric autorickshaw in east Delhi’s Geeta Colony.

Two months ago, the Delhi government released around 2,800 prisoners to decongest the prison complex as one of the steps to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). The released prisoners included 1,000 under-trials who were let off on bail while the others were convicts released on parole.

The records of arrested people over the last one month show that many released prisoners are back to a life of crime. Delhi Police has, in the past one month, arrested at least 129 such prisoners again after suspecting their involvement in cases of robbery, snatching, theft and burglary in different parts of the city.

“After the lockdown norms were eased and we started receiving reports of regular crimes from different parts of the city, our police teams launched a crackdown on such criminals,” a senior police officer, who did not wish to be named, said .”Our investigation showed that many of them were those who were released during the lockdown. In ideal circumstances they would be in prison while the courts conduct trial. The prison department released them but instead of appreciating the decision, they are back to crime. We have sent them back. The prison authorities must verify the records of each prisoner before letting them off.”

Another police officer said that though the police were proactive in arresting snatchers and robbers across the city, their efforts would be in vain if the prison keeps releasing habitual criminals.

“The 129 prisoners we arrested again are those whom we could trace. The actual number of such released criminals who are again active could be more,” the second officer added.

Reacting to the arrest of the released prisoners, a senior prison officer, who wished to remain anonymous, said they are complying with the court’s orders and are only releasing prisoners who were arrested in crimes for which the punishment is less than seven years. “Many prisoners who were arrested in non-heinous cases (punishment less than seven years) such as theft, snatching, burglary were released in March and April. We only release those who have one or few cases. Snatching and theft come under those categories. We analyse each case before releasing them. It is only done on the basis of the prisoner’s jail conduct.”

The prison officer added that such prisoners are only released on interim bail and their cases will be analysed once the pandemic has subsides.

Prison expert, Sunil Gupta, who was a law officer in Tihar for over three decades, said releasing prisoners who had barely spent a week behind bars back to the society had threatened the city’s law and order.

“ I am all for releasing prisoners. A jail is a reformation centre. The prison department should have released those prisoners who had spent many years in prison and were part of the reformation exercises. You have instead released habitual criminals, who barely stayed for a month behind bars. They will definitely go out and commit crimes. They may be petty criminals, such as snatchers and burglars, but once out of prison without any reformation, they are a threat to the city’s law and order,” Gupta said.

Gupta also offered a solution. The former law officer said that instead of decongesting the jail by releasing such prisoners, the prison department should house them in a temporary jail outside the prison complex. “The jail manual authorises the government to make a temporary prison in these times. They could make a school complex or a playground as a jail and house the prisoners there. We have done it in the past. Releasing unreformed habitual criminals within a month is a knee-jerk reaction that must be avoided. This will bring chaos.”

Housing over 18,000 prisoners, Tihar jail is the most populated prison across the country. There are three prison complexes under Tihar -- Tihar, Rohini and Mandoli. In April, the jail authorities released around 2,800 prisoners - under-trials and convicts -- on interim bail and extended parole to reduce the population within the jail.

With thousands of prisoners living in close proximity, jail officers feared that the coronavirus disease would spread rapidly if the prison was not decongested. The three prisons have collectively reported 20 cases of Covid-19, which includes 17 prisoners and three jailors. None of the cases were detected in June.

Retired Indian Police Service officer Prakash Singh, who served as the police chief of Uttar Pradesh, Border Security Force and the Assam Police, said the police must document the cases of such prisoners and present it in court. Singh also said the prison department must introspect on the files of each prisoner they release.

“They were released on humanitarian grounds but if they refuse to mend their ways, the punishment should be enhanced. Many of them are habitual criminals, who made nothing during the lockdown. They are not salaried or work anywhere so they depend on the earnings from the crime. Once released, they may be trying to make them up for lost months and are back to their business. The prison department must carefully scrutinise each case before releasing such criminal, ” Singh said.

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