HC tells magistrates to speed up interim bail hearings

State told to submit report of COVID-19 testing in prisons

May 27, 2020 12:34 am | Updated 12:34 am IST - Mumbai

Mumbai 07/05/2020: Policemen stand guard on the entrance of Arthur road prison where 40 people tested positive including prisoners and officials in Mumbai - Salman Ansari

Mumbai 07/05/2020: Policemen stand guard on the entrance of Arthur road prison where 40 people tested positive including prisoners and officials in Mumbai - Salman Ansari

The Bombay High Court on Tuesday directed magistrates across the State to expeditiously hear 14,121 interim bail applications that jail authorities have forwarded to courts.

The order came after the State, through the Prisons Department, told the court it had released more than 8,000 prisoners and have forwarded bail applications of 14,121 inmates to the respective courts to decongest prisons as the novel coronavirus continues to spread.

As of Monday, as many as 8,407 prisoners have been released either on parole on bail across Maharashtra.

A Division Bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Dutta and Justice K.K. Tated said, “We are of the opinion that the relevant courts are not supposed to act as mere post offices and allow applications without application of mind. We have no doubt in our mind that in the light of the guidelines issued by the high-power committee, the relevant courts, to the best of their ability and with the resources available at their disposal, have been striving to take the appropriate steps to dispose of as many applications for bail as possible in accordance with the law.”

The State had filed the affidavit after the HC directed it to respond to three separate public interest litigations (PILs), including one filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), which sought the intervention of the court to decongest prisons.

The PIL sought information on the health status of convicts and undertrials, especially in Arthur Road jail, the worst affected among prisons such as Yerwada, Taloja, Dhule, Satara and Byculla.

The reply filed by the Prisons Department has brought out inadequacies within the prison system. It said the State’s prisons had a capacity of 24,000, but housed 34,000 prisoners till May 10. The prison manual recommends 40 sq. ft. to each prisoner, and to ensure physical distancing, it had reduced the number of inmates by two-thirds.

This would mean that 16,000 prisoners would have to be released and that a prison could accommodate only 8,000. On May 25, Maharashtra’s prisons still had 29,737 inmates.

The court has directed the State to file a reply stating whether tests were carried out on prisoners in Arthur Road jail, who may have come into contact with 158 of those who have tested positive for the virus. It also asked the State to take appropriate measures till the time the reply is filed.

PUCL, represented by senior counsel Mihir Desai, also informed the court that reports of inmates being affected by the virus had got prisoners’ relatives anxious as they were not aware of the health status.

PUCL sought permission for inmates to make video calls, and prosecutor Deepak Thakare said arrangements for videoconferencing were being made, and till then, inmates would be allowed to speak to their family or advocate over the phone once a week.

Mr. Desai also informed the court that the system of transmitting money to the inmates through money orders has been discontinued and separate bank accounts have to be opened where family members can deposit money.

Mr. Thakare told the court that an April 8 circular had said the jailer can open an account and provide the details to inmates. The court told prisons to implement the instruction immediately.

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