COVID-19 surge | Supreme Court orders immediate de-congestion of prisons

Orders released inmates to be transported home so they do not violate curfew/lockdown

May 08, 2021 02:16 pm | Updated 03:01 pm IST - NEW DELHI

A view of the Supreme Court of India. File

A view of the Supreme Court of India. File

The Supreme Court has turned a humanitarian eye on the over four-lakh prison population inside overcrowded jails even as the second wave of the pandemic continues its devastating run across the country.

“India has more than four lakh prison inmates. It is observed that some of the prisons in India are overburdened and are housing inmates beyond optimal capacity…. The requirement of decongestion is a matter concerning the health and right to life of both the prison inmates and the police personnel working,” the Bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, and comprising Justices L. Nageswara Rao and Surya Kant, stressed.

In a 14-page order released on Saturday, Chief Justice Ramana’s Bench ordered the police to take a leaf from the apex court’s judgment in the Arnesh Kumar case and limit arrests during the pandemic to prevent over-crowding in jails; especially not to order detention in a mechanical manner in cases involving punishment of less or upto seven years’ imprisonment.

It further ordered special committees or ‘High-Powered Committees’ constituted in most States and Union Territories to screen prisoners and release them on interim bail. In addition to these fresh releases, the court said prisoners who were released on interim bail during the 2020 surge should be freed again “forthwith”. Ninety percent of inmates released last year had returned to their prisons in February and March 2021.

Similarly, inmates who were given parole in 2020 should be released again on a 90-day parole in a bid to de-congest prisons, control infections and save lives within the prison walls.

“From limiting arrests to taking care of COVID-19 patients, there is a requirement for effective management of pandemic from within the prison walls so as to defeat this deadly virus,” the court emphasised.

More importantly, this time, the court took into consideration a situation where certain prisoners may be too scared to return home, though eligible for release on interim bail or parole, owing to their social circumstances or simply because they are afraid they may get infected with COVID-19 while outside. In such cases, the court ordered proper medical facilities, immediate treatment and regular tests for both inmates and jail staff. It said maintenance of daily hygiene in prisons should be put at a premium.

“An unprecedented surge in Covid-19 during the last few weeks has resulted in a steep spike in the number of people who are affected by Covid-19. In the present situation there is a serious concern about the spread of Covid-19 in overcrowded prisons where there is lack of proper sanitation, hygiene and medical facilities,” the Supreme Court noted.

The Bench even ordered the State and prison authorities to transport the released prisoners to their homes so that they would not have any trouble in view of any curfew or lockdown.

The court said steps to reduce the impact of COVID-19 requires calibration of the concerns of the criminal justice system, health hazards and rights of accused persons.

Significantly, the court addressing the government, said “the fight against the pandemic is greatly benefitted by transparent administration”.

It noted, in this regard, how the prison occupancy in Delhi is updated on official websites concerned. “Such measures are required to be considered by other States and should be adopted as good practice. Moreover, all the decisions of High-Powered Committees need to be published on respective State Legal Service Authorities/State Governments/High Courts websites in order to enable effective dissemination of information.”

In 2020, it was left open to these committees to determine the category of prisoners who should be released depending upon the nature of offence, the prison sentence, the severity of offence, and the stage of trial or any other relevant factor.

"This is a hard-hitting and far-reaching order that will bring relief to about more than 60,000 under trial prisoners and convict prisoners and people in detention centres," the office of senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, who argued for the de-congestion of prisons in the case with advocates Ritu Kumar, Ajay Verma, Ankita Wilson and Harini Raghupathy, reacted to the court order.

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