The Bombay High Court on Thursday said it would be ordering the High Powers Committee (HPC) appointed last year to decongest jails across Maharashtra, to meet regularly and identify further categories of prisoners, who could be released on temporary bail or emergency parole. The HC has also ordered the Maharashtra government to spell out if the condition of mandatory Aadhar for getting vaccinated could be withdrawn at least for prisoners.
A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish Kulkarni was hearing a suo motu PIL it had taken up last month based on the coverage of Free Press Journal and another English national daily, regarding the sudden surge of Covid cases in prisons across the state.
On Thursday when the matter was called out for hearing, advocate general Ashutosh Kumbhakoni told the bench that presently there are around 244 inmates, who are infected with the virus. The bench was further informed that the state is taking all measures to control Covid in the prisons.
However, senior counsel Mihir Desai apprised the bench of various issues such as no proper testing in the prisons, inmates being made to use one single mask from last one year etc.
Prof Vijay Raghavan, who was also present in the hearing through video conferencing, informed the bench that the HPC led by Justice Amjad Sayed, which had last year given suggestions to decongest jails, must be asked to meet regularly.
"Last year 10,000 prisoners were released. Present population in jails across the state is more than 35,000 but the official capacity is 23,000," the professor told the bench. "Thus, overcrowding is a major problem with our jails. I would request, the HPC be made to meet regularly so that it could identify more categories of prisoners, who could be released on temporary basis," he added.
At this, CJ Datta said, "We will pass an order asking the HPC to meet regularly since it had last met in June 2020. It can again meet and identify categories of prisoners, who could be released in view of Covid surge in prisons."
Further, Raghavan told the bench that a major problem in vaccination for inmates is that they don't have Aadhaar Cards. "Several prisoners might not have an Aadhaar so this would mean they won't be inoculated," he submitted.
Hearing this, the bench sought to know from Kumbhakoni, whether prisoners could be given the jab without insisting on Aadhaar. The AG responded, "There is no issue of Aadhar from the state's end. But the Union government has put up a stand that Aadhaar is necessary to identify, who got the jab. So, the Union will have to answer this query."
The chief justice intervened and said, "If Aadhaar is becoming an hurdle for vaccination, why not have a camp to give Aadhar first?" Justice Kulkarni, added, "You (authorities) must understand that vaccination is the cheapest treatment for any citizen. Consider this condition again."
During the hearing, the bench noted that cases within prisons have scaled up because staffers go in and out of the jails. "You (state) can consider keeping batches of staffers, who could be made to live in jail premises for a specific period. And by the time their time period (to stay in jail premises) would come to an end, you can have another batch ready and test them before they start their job," Justice Kulkarni suggested.
The bench further ordered the state to ensure that prisoners get masks regularly and even the hand-sanitizers. Meanwhile, the bench was informed that the state has conducted 64,000 tests on prisoners till date.