Prisoners of Birsa Munda Central Jail under police custody, arrive for COVID-19 tests (PTI)
NEW DELHI: In order to protect prisoners' right to life, the Supreme Court has directed states to examine releasing inmates, convicted or facing trial in non-serious charges, from jails either on regular bail or on parole to prevent overcrowding and spread of Covid-19 infection in prisons during the current surge in virulent cases.
The SC not only ordered release of prisoners on parole or bail, but also took into consideration the difficulty they would face in reaching their homes during lockdown. It asked the state governments to provide prisoners, released on the basis of SC orders, with transport facility till their homes.
A bench of Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justices L N Rao and Surya Kant said, "Appropriate steps shall be taken for transportation of the released inmates of the prisons, if necessary, in view of the curfews and lockdowns (enforced by) in some states."
It asked the authorities to be considerate to the concerns of inmates and directed them "to ensure that proper medical facilities are provided to all prisoners who are imprisoned. The spread of Covid-19 virus should be controlled in the prisons by regular testing of the prisoners and jail staff. Immediate treatment should be made available to the inmates and the staff. It is necessary to maintain required levels of daily hygiene and sanitation.
There are 1,350 prisons in the country consisting of 617 sub-jails, 410 district jails, 144 central jails, 86 open jails, 41 special jails, 31 women jails, 19 Borstal schools and 2 others. The prisons have a capacity to house 4,03,739 inmates, but there were 4,78,600 of them as of December 2019. Among them, 19,913 are women. The CJI-led bench said, “Some of the prisons are overburdened... we may notice that the requirement of decongestion is a matter concerning health and right to life.”
The WHO had on March 11 last year declared Covid-19 as a pandemic and within a week, the SC had ordered the states to set up high-powered committees to examine the cases of prisoners suitable for release on bail or parole for 90 days. But, with the pandemic slowing down considerably in January and February this year, the inmates were asked to report back to prisons.
It asked the state governments, who have not constituted the HPCs (high-powered committees) yet, to do so immediately and asked the Delhi government to include Commissioner of Police in the HPC. The bench directed that “those inmates who were granted parole, pursuant to our earlier orders, should be again granted parole for a period of 90 days”.
“...our attention was drawn to the example of Delhi, wherein the prison occupancy is updated in websites. Such measures are required to be considered by other states. Moreover, all the decisions of HPC need to be published on websites,” it said.