In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, the Supreme Court issued a directive to lessen the overcrowding in prisons, and within three days of the order Maharashtra’s Home Minister, Anil Deshmukh, announced on Twitter that the State would release 11,000 undertrials on bail from 60 prisons. The NCP leader wrote, “I’ve asked for releasing nearly 11,000 convicts/undertrials imprisoned for offences with prescribed punishment up to 7 years or less on emergency parole/ furlough to reduce overcrowding in prisons and contain the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.” The release will be on temporary bail.
Prior to this, on March 17, the State Prisons department had already initiated action to try and contain the spread of the virus. At a press conference, Additional Director General of Police (Prisons) Sunil Ramanand said, the reduction of the prison population was essential as they were overpopulated at present. “About 45 per cent inmates at Yerwada Central Jail, Arthur Road jail, and Thane and Nashik jails are undertrials. They are taken to various courts for hearings. To prevent the spread of coronavirus we have to stop taking prisoners out of the jail. Over the next 15 days they will be produced before the courts via video conferencing,” he said. Meetings with families were also cancelled for a fortnight. Isolation cells had been created within the prison and medical checks of prisoners had commenced, he said.
The 60 prisons in the State were designed to house 24,000 inmates, but currently hold 38,000 prisoners. Efforts to decongest jails started in 2017 after a riot broke out in the women’s prison when an undertrial died allegedly because of physical violence by prison staff. At the time the State government had asked the police to assist with the release of about 5,000 undertrials who had been arrested for petty offences. There had also been a move to assist 700 undertrials who had been granted bail but remained in prison because they were unable to raise the surety amount. The State was, even then, acting on a Supreme Court order that instructed police to avoid arrests where the accused face a maximum of seven years in jail if convicted.
Until March 27 Maharashtra reported 135 positive COVID cases. Like most decisions made in a crisis, this could be a double-edged sword. While there will be a double benefit of relief to the undertrials and a lessening of the virus spreading within the prison, there is another obvious danger. Prison staff who have contact with the outside world could easily have been passing on the virus to prisoners who, when released, will carry this to their families and neighbours. There has been no talk of thorough pre-release medical checks, home quarantine or even provisions for released undertrials whose homes are not in Mumbai. One way or the other it is a Hobson’s choice for the government.