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COVID-19 a death sentence for inmates: Impact of global pandemic over prisons in India

COVID-19 a death sentence for inmates: Impact of global pandemic over prisons in India.
The pandemic has brought forward various challenging aspect for the society out of which one is overcrowding in Indian prisons. The COVID-19 has lead the governments of various nations to release people in custody, well the situation is much severe in India, due to its huge population and its direct implication can be seen in jails and prisons.

Indian jails and prisons notorious for its cruel and harsh living condition, where social distancing and sanitizing is nearly impossible due to many reasons, some of major reasons are:
  • Poor infrastructure of prisons
  • Bad conditions of urinal facilities
  • Overcrowding in terms of occupancy and use of facilities.
The United states already has released majority of its prisoners as a preventive measure as the state has faced worst hit by corona virus with total cases of more than 12 lakh and total deaths around 78600. Authorities in U.S recently have reported 30 other federal prisoner deaths from COVID-19 since the outbreak first reached the US. It is said that more than 1,500 inmates and 343 employees have been infected, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

Looking at the statistics above of U.S, India needs to analyze the situation as the pandemic can do much more blunder in India due to various other favorable factors like:
  • Poor medical health facilities
  • Less no. of medical professionals as compared to population per se
  • Huge population
India which already came into STAGE 3 of corona outbreak and question which arises before us is whether inmates need to suffer the consequences of (corona virus) on notion of their crimes for which they are already serving in prisons. We might need to ask few right questions to get our answers.

Why the confined people at much risk of COVID 19?

COVID 19 has established new norms for human's race that are never seen or imagined before not only human interaction but just basic survival: social distancing, wearing masks, improving hygiene using soaps and hand sanitizers and quarantining. Making social distancing means keeping a distance of at least 6 feet from other per b staying away from crowds, not coming in contact with surface most likely to be touched by masses. Imagining these norms to follow in Indian prisons where the prisoners are reported[1] to be around 4,33,003 as of July 2019 in various sub, district and central jails against the total capacity of 3,96,223.

In the 2018 report by National Crime Records Bureau [2], the inmates population of Indian prisons is 4,66,083, against the total capacity of 3,96,223 making it to occupancy rate of 117.6% clearly showing the overcrowding problem of jails. The composition of the total capacity of prisoners is even more interesting to see, where the total number of under trials (under suspicion) inmates is 3,23,537 which is 69.63% of total population of prisoners and out of which 19.02% are people above age of 50 years.

Do these people behind bars, out of which nearly 70% which are under trial (under suspicion) need to face pandemic with grave danger on the notion of incapability of our jail authorities? does being behind bars make them less of human?

Rights of prisoners in INDIA

Section 1 of the Prison Security Act 1992, defines the term prisoner as any person who is kept under custody in jail or prison because he/she committed an act prohibited by law of the land. Prisoners are deprived with right to liberty due to certain restriction in jail. This liberty can be deprived by forceful restrain or confinement. It is well known conviction of crime does not change a person into non-person, therefore he enjoys the same rights of that of non-prisoners but not absolutely. Prisoners' rights deal with the rights of the inmates while behind bars.

Prisoners have basic legal rights that can't be taken away from them. The basic rights include right to food and water, right to have an attorney to defend himself, protection from torture, violence and racial harassment.

CHAPTER IV of Rights of Prisoners and duties of prisoner's officials[3] gives brief about development of prisons by various legislations and rights examined by courts over time for prisoners. Moreover, prisoners are not aware of these rights, or not aware of procedure thereof. V.R. Krishna Iyer (J) has rightly observed:
In our world prisons are still laboratories of torture, warehouses in which human commodities are sadistically kept and where spectrums of inmates range from drift-wood juveniles to heroic dissenters.

Fundamental rights granted by Constitution.
The prisoners are treated as persons according to Indian prison law in India, being behind bars not reduce them of being human being therefore the rights guaranteed in PART III are available to prisoners. It is established that these rights are not absolute, like for the non-prisoners but subjected to some legal restriction. In case State of A.P v. Challa Ram Krishna Reddy[4] held that being a prisoner does not deprive him of his fundamental rights, he is a human being, natural person and legal person. Article 14, 19, 20 and 21 provides fundamental rights which are available to prisoners under the constitution of India.

Article 14:

[states equality before law and equal protection of law]. It states that no person shall be denied equality before law or equal protection of law. Article 14 explains that like should be treated alike and the concept of reasonable classification. The concept is very widely used among prison officials to segregate the prisoners and create classifications of prisoners, on basis of offences and sentence, i.e., under trials, thief is kept away from hard criminals.

Article 19:

[six fundamental Freedoms]. Guarantees to every citizen of India, six fundamental freedoms to citizen of India, among which not all can be exercised by the prisoners due to the nature of the freedom. The few are freedom are thereof available i.e. freedom to speech and expression and freedom to be a part of association.

Article 21:

[Right to life and personal liberty] it provides no person shall be deprived of his life and liberty except the procedure established by law. This right has been held to be heart of constitution, being the most pure and progressive provision of living constitution. The sentence procedure established by law means that the right under Article 21 can only be asked against state as defined in Article 12 and not against individuals, e.g. person against person.

Article 21 secures two rights:

A. Right to live with human dignity.

In new dimension of Article 21, the Hon'ble supreme court held that right to life does not mean mere confinement of physical existence but includes within its ambit right to live with human dignity. he Hon'ble Supreme Court held that the word ‘life' includes that it goes along with; namely the bare necessaries of the life such as adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter over the head and facilities for reading, writing expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and commingling with fellow human beings. The pandemic has created situation leading to direct violation of prisoners most basic fundamental right, right to life and personal liberty guaranteed under article 21.

Corona crises have directly highlighted problem of overcrowding and bad medical facilities putting the lives of inmates in Indian prisons in grave danger. Definition under section 1 of prison security act which defines prisoner as any person makes a prisoner natural human guarded by fundamental rights. A direct violation of right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of constitution of India. On the contrary the ground level reality of prisons in India is much known to be worse and conditions are nowhere near the judgements given by Hon'ble court or legislative prions reforms.

In Khadak Singh v. state of U.P[5] the court quoted with approval Field, J's observation in Munn v. Illinois[6] and held: by the term life as here used something more is meant then mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed. The provision equally prohibits the mutilation of the body by amputation of the arm or leg or pulling out of an eye, or the destruction of any other organ of the body by which soul communicates with outer world.

Supreme court in matter of prisoners during outbreak of COVID-19

March 18: Apex Court in a suo-motu cognizance petition named Contagion of COVID-19 in prisons[7] to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in Indian prisons. In a Bench led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde directed the state and territories to take preventive measures in prisons. The court observed that: the Director General of Prisons, Kerala has set up isolation cells within prisons across-Kerala.

Those suffering with COVID-19 symptoms such as cold and fever are being moved to these isolation cells. All the new inmates who will be admitted to the prisons in Kerala will be isolated in the isolation cells in the admissions block for six days before permitting their entry into the regular prison cells. The supreme court also noted that: An isolation ward has been set up in the Tihar Jail, Delhi and all the 17,500 inmates of the said Jail were checked for COVID-19, and it was observed that none of prisoners displayed any symptoms relating to COVID-19.

March 26: the apex court gave guidelines to various states and union territories for releasing of prisoners from overcrowded prisons across the country. Each of the states were required to constitute a high powered committee to determine the class of prisoners and make classification of them to be released on parole and interim bail for the offences entailing up to seven year of jail term for decongesting the Indian jails. Apex court later cleared that the order (supra) did not guided compulsory release of prisoners from all states and UT's.

Sticking together to the Supreme Court's March 23 directive to the states to consider releasing some prisoners to decongest jails and restrain the possible spread of COVID-19 , states which are most effected by corona, States including Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi have recorded Covid-19 cases in their prisons.

Maharashtra as one of the most effected states in country has made a decision of releasing half of its prisoners on bails and parole, initially the state released 5000 inmates as response to supra order by supreme court, the decision of releasing half of inmates was made when 184 persons (158 inmates and 26 staff) were found infected in Arthur Road Jail. Following the Supreme Court order, most states have constituted a high-powered committee and come up with their respective categories of prisoners eligible for release.

Is what done by states government at this frisk moment enough? Could something more would have been done

Basic rights of prisoners are an undoable task to be performed by the prison administration and a blurry imagination for our inmates in them to demand them, conditions of our prisons have been poor from a very long time and has been covered by various excuses, (as our theory of prisons are made in from to punish a person) but does that withdraw the basic human rights. The delay in release of prisoners is entire new suffering from them.

In a recent article by BBC The freed prisoner who is unable to return home[8] the stories of inmate has been covered, who is not able to return to his mother who is being looked after by neighbor, repeated denial by people of society accepting him back, happen him to live on roads, the story not only ends to one but faced by of inmates faced the same situation after getting freed from prisons.

Indian jails is at the helm of an outdated law

The prison system in India is governed by the archaic Prisons Act 1894 and the Prisoners Act 1900 even after 100 years without major amends. In 2005, the Bureau of Police Research and Development engaged prison officials, academics and prison experts in drafting a Model National Prison Manual. Some of the most important recommendations of the manual include the creation of new bodies including a department of prisons and correctional services and a full-time National Commission on prisons; using alternatives to imprisonment; renewing the focus on prisoner rehabilitation; reducing the prison population; and modernizing the prisons themselves.

In the situation where trends and situation of society is changing every day. It is illogical for one to think how our prisons system which are meant to rehabilitate a criminal can work efficiently under a decade old law. The present COVID-19 showed the inability of state as well as center government in making any reforms mentioned in 2005 Model National Prison Manual. The prison reforms being a state subject, therefore making no accountability of central government or state.


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