New Delhi: With poet Varavara Rao and activists Akhil Gogoi and Sharjeel Imam testing positive for Covid-19 inside crowded prisons, the cases have brought to the fore concerns about the safety of inmates and jail staff amid the Covid pandemic. Jails across the country are reporting increasing cases of the infection, and the situation appears to be alarming at some places.
Government data accessed by ThePrint shows that at least 3,355 inmates and jail staff tested positive for Covid-19 in 17 states as of 22 July, with at least 2,341 of them having recovered and 14 losing their lives.
While the numbers may not seem much, compared to the skyrocketing national figures, experts warn that the situation could explode given that Indian jails are notorious for overcrowding and states have done little to ease the pressure, despite the Supreme Court urging them to do so.
The apex court had on 23 March directed states and union territories to come up with measures to contain the virus from spreading in prisons, including releasing certain categories of prisoners on bail and parole.
The idea was to decongest the existing 1,339 prisons (according to the Prison Statistics in India 2018) in the country. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) 2018 data showed there were 4,40,000 inmates in the jails, nearly 60,000 over the sanctioned capacity.
A report by the National Legal Services Authority in May this year pegged the numbers of those released since the beginning of the pandemic at 42,000 undertrials and 1,80,000 convicts across the country.
The problem of overcrowding
According to Dr Vijay Raghavan, professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), despite states having followed the Supreme Court orders to an extent, prisons are still dangerously crowded.
He said jails that were operating at a 114 per cent capacity are now running at 102 per cent, making it virtually impossible for them to adhere to Covid-19 guidelines.
“Social distancing is not possible as out of nearly 5 lakh prisoners, about 12 per cent (60,000) were released on bail after the SC’s directive,” said Raghavan, who is also the project director at Prayas, an NGO that works towards prison reforms.
He said states should categorise the prisoners based on health parameters and release them accordingly. “Categorise people on the basis of who is at more risk of contracting the infection instead of the offence be it those above 60, comorbidities, pregnant women, women with children,” Raghavan said.
Retired IPS officer Prakash Singh, who has served as the Uttar Pradesh DGP, told ThePrint that open jails can be used to shift some of the inmates. “It is important to also ensure that undertrials, especially those held for petty offences, are released as that is doable.”
While states such as Delhi, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh have released large numbers of prisoners, others like Maharashtra continue to operate massively overcrowded jails. Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail, for example, is housing nearly 2,500 prisoners against a capacity of about 800.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recently observed that “decongesting prisons just by releasing inmates is not the solution” and clarified that the suboptimal health environment prevalent in Indian prisons must be addressed. It has constituted an 11-member committee to guide state authorities on how to deal with the issue of unhygienic conditions, lack of medical staff and Covid-19 testing in prisons.
Maharashtra, Assam jails worst affected
The states where Rao, Imam and Gogoi are incarcerated — Maharashtra and Assam — have the largest number of Covid-19 cases in prisons.
While Maharashtra recorded 885 cases as of 22 July, Assam has 538 cases spread across 10 of its jails.
Of Maharashtra’s cases, Nagpur Central Prison has reported the highest with 219, followed by the Mumbai Central Prison, better known as the Arthur Road Jail, with 182 positive cases.
Moreover, over 200 prison staff have also tested positive.
In all, over 50 per cent of those who tested positive have recovered, government officials told ThePrint, while an affidavit filed in the Bombay High Court on 14 June, by Additional DIG (prisons) Sunil Ramanand said four inmates had succumbed to the illness.
In Assam, 10 of the 31 jails have prisoners who have tested positive. Less than 50 per cent of the total of 538 patients have recovered so far, most of whom are lodged in the Guwahati Central Jail.
Assam IG (Prisons) Dasarath Das told ThePrint that a containment zone in the central jail now houses around 440 prisoners and three guards infected with the novel coronavirus.
He added that samples of over 1,200 inmates had been taken, following which those who tested positive were shifted to hospitals or Covid care centres depending on symptoms.
“We send them for treatment to various centres and only once they’ve recovered, they’re allowed to return,” Das told ThePrint.
“We also sanitise the jail wards regularly and have stopped new admissions,” Das said, adding that the first case was reported on 4 June.
The state government is also building a 200-bed Covid care centre at the central jail given the rising number of cases.
In Delhi, infection rate higher in staff than in inmates
The number of coronavirus cases in Delhi’s Tihar, Rohini and Mandoli jails has increased from 68 to 179 in the one-month period from 20 June to 22 July, according to the prisons department.
In the national capital, however, a larger number of jail staff (120) have been infected as compared to the inmates (59), confirmed DG (Prisons) Sandeep Goel.
Jail officials attribute the spurt in cases over the past month to fresh admissions and aggressive testing since the first case was detected on 13 May.
“We regularly screen inmates and recommend immediate isolation to those having even mild symptoms of ILI (influenza-like illness) and SARI (severe acute respiratory infections),” Goel told ThePrint, adding that continuous awareness towards cleanliness, general hygiene and social distancing were crucial.
Rapid antigen testing camp has also been set up at the dispensary in Tihar for over 2,500 prisoners. In fact, Goel emphasised that while antigen testing was for staff, inmates underwent the RT-PCR tests.
A jail superintendent in Delhi, requesting anonymity, told ThePrint: “Everyone relies on data but who is even entering prisons to check if intimates are actually wearing masks and following hygiene.” He added that if they tried to ask inmates to wear masks, some revolt, often resulting in a tussle.
One jail accounts for all prison cases in J&K
Of the 14 prisons in Jammu and Kashmir, just one — the Anantnag District Jail — has accounted for all 94 cases in the union territory’s prisons.
The situation reached a tipping point there on 10 July when Zahoor Bhat, the younger brother of Maqbool Bhat, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front founder, tested positive.
Although Zahoor was shifted to a hospital, the infection had spread in the jail that has 193 intimates against a capacity of 60. A total of 93 inmates, and one staff member of the jail, have tested positive as of 16 July.
There are, however, fears that other prisons are also vulnerable as there are 3,628 inmates in the 14 jails against a capacity of 3,234 even though 250 were released in May and April.
Thousands of them were taken into custody ahead of the scrapping of Article 370 last August, with administrators now in a dilemma as to whether they should continue to be kept in jails or released amid the pandemic.
Sources told ThePrint that the authorities in the home department were concerned that these inmates could indulge in unlawful activities once released.
DG among those affected in Rajasthan
Rajasthan DG (Jails) N.R.K. Reddy was among the over 450 people associated with prisons in the state to have tested positive for Covid-19. He has now recovered.
Sources told ThePrint that Reddy could have contracted the infection at the Jaipur District Jail, which he visited in May and which had 125 prisoners with Covid-19 back then.
Malini Agarwal, Additional DG (Jails), however, told ThePrint that all measures are now being taken, including regular sanitisation and isolation wards for suspected cases, to combat the Covid crisis.
The Pratapgarh District Jail has also been adversely impacted with 122 cases as of last week, of whom four prisoners have died due to Covid-19.
In Madhya Pradesh, a total of 121 prisoners and 14 jail staff have tested positive. Of these, 64 inmates and three guards tested positive at the Bareli sub-jail in Raisen district. As of 20 July, prison officials had decided not to let any new admissions in.
Another 57 inmates have reported positive from other jails in that state, including a couple in Bhopal and hotspot Indore.
Similar stories in the South, East
Down south, Karnataka has 170 cases of prisoners With Covid, with DGP Praveen Sood explained that since prisoners have to be sent to jail within 24 hours, delay in test results makes it difficult to judge who could be a carrier.
DG (prisons) Alok Mohan echoed the view. “We test all new admissions but sometimes reports come only after they’ve entered the jail premises,” Mohan said.
The neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu has also registered 150 Covid cases among inmates even though 35,000 prisoners were released from their prisons post the Supreme Court’s directive. One probation officer even passed away.
Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, which have been grabbing headlines for the spurt in overall Covid cases, are relatively stable when it comes to the outbreak in prisons. While Andhra has reported 20 coronavirus cases from prisons, Telangana so far has seen only four prisoners testing positive. Gujarat also has reported 20 cases in prisons so far, confirmed DG (prisons) KLN Rao.
Bihar has reported 77 Covid cases in its prisons of whom 46 are prison staff. Four inmates in Bhagalpur jail died, but Bihar IG (prisons) Mithilesh Mishra said they tested positive only after their deaths.
Efforts made so far
Apart from releasing inmates, some of the larger states with a greater strength of prisoners have introduced varying measures to deal with the situation.
Maharashtra, for example, has so far declared 36 locations, mostly schools and other municipal properties, across 27 districts as temporary prisons-cum-quarantine and Covid facilities with proper partitioning.
These temporary jails are required to maintain records of every inmate and whether he or she is Covid positive, an official from the state prison department said.
In the national capital, a page-long guideline was released for Delhi prisons focusing on repeated screening among inmates, discontinuation of all visits of outside agencies including NGOs, creation of isolation wards in each jail, entry of new inmates to be restricted to only two male jails, one female and one adolescent jail each to segregate them for 14 days, among other measures.
Karnataka had started segregating new inmates even before the Supreme Court’s intervention.
Explaining how they have put in place additional systems of quarantine, Tamil Nadu DGP Sunil Kumar Singh said they have identified 105 sub jails in the various districts of the state so that the new prisoners are first tested, quarantined and on receiving their results, are moved to the central prisons.
In Assam, a ward of Guwahati Central Jail has been converted into a Covid-19 hospital. This comes after two jail inmates escaped from an out-of-town Covid care centre they were taken to, according to jail officials.
MP, meanwhile, has completely stopped new admissions.
(With inputs from Manasi Phadke, Rohini Swamy, Azaan Javaid, Madhuparna Das, Chitleen Sethi and Prashant Srivastav)