Activist Medha Patkar has approached the Supreme Court, saying its intervention to release prisoners to avoid spread of COVID-19 is hardly helping elderly inmates, especially those aged above 70, who live in anxious isolation behind bars.
The Supreme Court had, in suo motu hearings, ordered States to form High Powered Committees (HPCs) to consider and release prisoners on interim bail or parole to de-congest prisons on a war-footing.
But Ms. Patkar said the panels, though well-intentioned, did not get their priorities right. Social conditions of the prisoners and administrative convenience seem to take priority over susceptibility to the virus while categorising prisoners for release.
Ms. Patkar said prisoners who were more susceptible to the infection should get priority and be released on an urgent basis. “The most susceptible ones are the aged/elderly prisoners, who have a higher chance of getting infected, specifically septuagenarian prisoners,” she noted in a petition filed through advocate Vipin Nair.
She said the aged may form only a minuscule part of the prison population but were the most vulnerable to the virus. Many elderly inmates, after decades behind prison walls, were prone to cognitive decline and dementia. There may be others who need care due to anxiety, anger issues, stress and agitation caused by isolation during the pandemic.
“Chances of law and order situation on account of release of elderly prisoners are less, as the tendency to indulge in repeated offences reduces at such an age,” Ms. Patkar argued.
She asked the Supreme Court to direct the Centre and the States to “adopt a uniform method for release, either on interim bail or emergency parole, to safeguard the interests of the elderly prisoners who have been incarcerated for years together”.
The petition said that HPCs in only four States — Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Haryana — have so far taken steps to release aged prisoners. “Most of the remaining States have not even discussed the issue of releasing aged prisoners nor seem to do so in future meetings of their HPCs,” the petition said.
It said the “conditions in some of the States like Gujarat and Rajasthan are the worst”.
“Unless the aged prisoners are given special treatment and considered for release either on interim bail or emergency/special parole, the possibility of their exposure to infection and ultimately succumbing to the virus is very high,” she contended.
The petition said a prisoner too had the right to life and dignity. Living in congested prisons during a pandemic was a threat to their lives. The Health Ministry has already issued a ‘Health Advisory for Elderly Population of India’ during COVID-19, highlighting the essentiality of maintaining social distancing so as to reduce the mortality rate within prisons.
Internationally, the United Nations Population Fund has taken note of the increasing risk of COVID-19 infection among the older strata of human population.