Mumbai: Maharashtra prisons overflowing with 34,238 inmates, as threat from COVID-19 looms large

There have been various committees that have been formed since Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay first spoked about the inhumane conditions prevalent in prisons in his representation to the Legislative Council in 1835, on the basis of which the Prisons Act of 1894 was formed.

But despite various committees having recommended for prison reforms, the COVID-19 pandemic saw that the Supreme Court had to intervene and direct states to release prisoners. Its directions saw a high power committee (HPC) headed by a sitting high court judge deciding on the prisoners who could be released. It became effective for Maharashtra after the HPC in its last sitting in May 2020 released 10,803 prisoners on bail, temporary bail and emergency parole to decongest the otherwise overcrowded prisons.

But a year later in May 2021, the state of affairs in Maharashtra prisons has gone back to the being overcrowded. 47 prisons across Maharashtra have a capacity to house 24,032 inmates and it’s currently overflowing with 34,238 inmates.

A brief looks at some prisons in Maharashtra portrays the disproportionate numbers of inmates in prisons as compared to its capacity. “There are about 3,000 inmates in Arthur Road prison in Mumbai which has a capacity to hold only 804 inmates. Likewise, Thane Central Jail which can house 1105 inmates is holding more than three times its capacity at 3800. Taloja Central Jail which can house 2124 inmates has a population of 3,500,” said jail officer from Maharashtra prisons who states the necessity to decongest prisons.

“The court have to decide on the bail pleas of many persons. There are times when an accused in a petty crime is send to jail for seven days, and is released later on bail. Such accused can be granted bail under stricter conditions and it will help decongest the prisons. There have been instances where even those arrested for public assembly during lockdown are sent to the prison. It unduly stresses the already crowded prison,” said another jail officer, requesting anonymity.

“What bothers us is of cases where the accused tests negative in an RT-PCR test, but later is found with positive symptoms. One such case can become a super spreader within prisons,” added the officer. Jail officials also suggest to follow the Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh High Court’s direction to avoid arresting culprits till June 30 until its absolutely necessary.

Advocate Raja Thakre said, “These days bail applications are filed online. The applications are further scrutinized as per the category and we have to wait for our number. Presently the court works on alternate days, so it takes time for the bail application to come on board. Even if it comes on board the public prosecutor takes time to get instruction from the police and again its delayed. There are many issues which we faced to get bail currently."

Mihir Desai, Senior advocate and the state convenor of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, who is also appointed as amicus curiae in an ongoing petition addressing the issues of prisons in the Bombay High Court, said, "The court is seriously looking into the issue. It's trying ways and means to decongest the jail across Maharashtra. The court may suggest the high power committee to meet and bring a solution to reduce the congestion. The high power committee last met last in May 2020," he added.

Professor Vijay Raghavan, from the Centre for Criminology and Justice at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) who is also assisting the court, said, "Directions have already passed by the high court asking the high power committee to meet. The high-power committee had issued guidelines last year to release under trial and convicted prisoners. As per the guidelines, inmates were released on bail and parole, while in many cases, bail was rejected by the trial courts. Now when the high power committee meets again, the HPC may come up with fresh guidelines for release of categories of undertrials."

Raghavan added, "The under trial review committees headed by the district judge should identify cases for release based on the SOP developed by the National Legal Services Authority NALSA, as per the Supreme Court directions in the PIL Regarding Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons in India,"

Meeran Chadha Borwankar, former additional director general, Maharashtra Prisons, said, "I see a very high COVID-19 related risk for inmates in prisons which have traditionally been over crowded e.g in Arthur Road jail. There are very few toilets and common kitchens, therefore infection can spread very fast.”

The Government can consider fast tracking convicts to ‘Open Prisons’ by clearing the waiting list (for ‘Open Prisons’). Police and judiciary too can resort to taking bonds from offenders or suspects under the Criminal Procedure Code instead of putting them in prisons, opined Borwankar.

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