The overcrowded prisons in Maharashtra have once again attracted attention of all owing to the sudden rise in Covid-19 cases across all the 47 prisons in the state. The prisons that have atleast 12,000 extra prisoners have seen seven deaths over 241 active Covid cases.
Despite these alarming numbers, the shortfall of medical staff is another reason for being concerned over the outbreak of the contagious virus within jails.
As per the records of Maharashtra government, there is a shortfall of over 63 medical staffers as against the sanctioned 175 for all the 47 jails.
This would mean that on an average one medical personnel would be looking after at least 315 odd prisoners. It would further mean that the present strength of two MBBS doctors would be looking after the health of these 35,000 prisoners.
There is not only a serious shortfall of medical staff but also a lack of modern medical infrastructure within the prisons. "Not all jails have the facility of hospitals on their premises. And the ones that have hospitals lack proper facilities," said senior counsel Mihir Desai.
"The Bombay High Court in its recent hearing rightly pointed out to the state that we cannot function like this. Jails need to have proper medical facilities so that we don't overburden civil hospitals especially in Covid times," Desai said.
Desai further pointed out that the Covid treatment at present is being done only by allopathic doctors. "Even Uttar Pradesh is having allopathic doctors for treating Covid prisoners. But our state has prisons where there are only Ayurvedic doctors to treat Covid. I am not against Ayurveda doctors but the protocol must be followed," the counsel said.
As per the official data, there are around 131 oximeters and thermal scanners across the 47 prisons, which would mean one such device, would test or examine 270 prisoners.
Further, the 47 jails and 13 open prisons, collectively have the facility of 73 coin box telephone service and 80 mobile phones to connect with their families virtually.
Desai, however, suggests that the numbers must be increased especially because dozen of prisons still do not have both the facilities, thereby, making the prisoner loose contact with family in these testing times.
Desai pointed out that the total capacity minus the social distancing factor, of all the jails is over 23,000 while at present there are 35,124 prisoners lodged in all the jails.
"This virus can be contained only by maintaining social distancing and wearing masks. But we must be mindful of the fact that our jails aren't designed to have social distance at all. If we were to have proper social distancing in our jails then there must not be more than 11,000 prisoners," Desai said.
Desai further alleged that the state has not given a new mask to the prisoners since last one year. "This is what the prisoners have told me. They are using the same mask from last year," he claimed.
However, the state authorities have denied the said contention and have said that multiple masks were initially given to prisoners and they were given more such masks regularly.
"Overcrowding has been a usual issue in all the jails across India. This has been our way of functioning always it is just that during Covid all these aspects are magnified and noted," the senior advocate added.
According to the state's official data, of the total 6,481 under-trials and convicts above the age of 45 years, only 1520 have managed to get the vaccines while rest others continue to run the risk of contracting the virus.
The numbers are shocking especially in Kalyan central jail, which has 956 prisoners above 45 years but not a single has received any dose yet. Similar is the situation in Jalna, Kolhapur, Taloja, Ratnagiri, Sangli, Solapur, Ahmednagar, Beed, Osmanabad, Parbhani, Nanded, Paithan, Jalgaon, Nandurbar, Yavatmal, Washmim and Buldhana prisons, wherein no inmates have received any vaccine yet.
However, as far as the prison staff is concerned, of the total 3,818, at least 3,252 have been vaccinated.
Speaking about the vaccination, Dr Vijay Raghavan, from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), had last week told the Bombay HC that the authorities can consider giving jabs to all the prisoners irrespective of whether they possess an Aadhar Card or not. Similar suggestion was given by the bench led by Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and the Union in its new SOPs of May 6 decided to inoculate prisoners on the basis of their jail numbers and not insist to produce Aadhar card.
The bench led by CJ Datta is seized with a suo motu PIL taken up on the basis of the reportage of the Free Press Journal and another national daily, on the surge in Covid cases in prisons.