Prisons become breeding grounds for the coronavirus

Print edition : August 28, 2020

Unsanitary conditions and overcrowding make prisons extremely vulnerable to disease outbreaks. Photo: Prison Reforms Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

Overcrowded prisons across India have become fertile breeding grounds for the coronavirus.

As early as May, the International Legal Foundation, which has two decades of experience in protecting detainees impacted by infectious diseases, warned that it was not a question of if, but when, COVID-19 would overwhelm incarceration facilities.

When 57 girls became COVID-positive in a shelter home in Kanpur, and seven of them were found to be pregnant, it shook the administration’s complacency and turned the spotlight on the spread of the virus in closed facilities such as detention centres.

A number of prisons across India have emerged as COVID-19 hotspots. These include prisons in Delhi, Jaipur, Puzhal Central Prison Chennai, Cuddalore Central Prison, Rajamahendravaram Central Prison Kakinada, Warangal Central Prison, Sangli District Prison, prisons of Behrampur circle, Rourkela Jail, Agra Central Jail, Jhansi Prison, Ballia district jail, Arthur Road Jail Mumbai, Nagpur Central Prison, Yerwada Central Prison, Guwahati Central Jail, the district jail in South Kashmir's Anantanag, Pratapgarh Jail in Udaipur, the Vadodara Central Prison and Bareli sub-jail of Madhya Pradesh. The Delhi Prison has 16 jails spread across three complexes in Tihar, Mandoli and Rohini; more than 220 inmates and staff members of Delhi Prison have tested positive.

Unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, poor nutrition, co-morbidities and a shortage of hygiene products in these confined spaces have rendered inmates vulnerable to disease outbreaks even in normal times. Indian prisons are overcrowded by upto an average of 150 per cent, which makes social distancing impossible to maintain. Legal researchers have pointed out that in some prisons, there is not enough space for all the prisoners to even sit comfortably, let alone sleep at the same time.

On June 16, large-scale violence broke out inside Delhi's Tihar Jail. Apparently, foreign inmates were protesting against an order that prevented them from getting interim bail. Such protests have increased in the months after the pandemic erupted, but the authorities quickly suppress them. The June 16 incident came to light when Pinjra Tod (an autonomous collective of women students) member Natasha Narwal alleged that inmates were prohibited from getting in touch with family members via videoconferencing because of the violence. Narwal is one of several student activists arrested during the lockdown for her role in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests.

At a time when prisons are being decongested the world over in view of the pandemic, and even the Supreme Court of India has ordered the release of prisoners, Indian investigating agencies are working overtime to fill prisons with more arrestees.

Several States have introduced punitive measures for citizens who fail to comply with lockdown rules. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed deep concern that some countries were threatening to impose prison sentences on those who failed to maintain physical distancing. Such actions were likely to exacerbate the grave situation in prisons and would do little to halt the disease’s spread. “Imprisonment should be a measure of last resort,” she said.

The prison population is not static. Though prisons are opaque facilities, there is a considerable traffic of people entering and exiting them. Every week thousands of people are arrested and released and transferred between jails, creating a floating pool of prisoners. Moreover, the cumulative number of staff employed by the prison-industrial complex is also substantial. Prison administrations across India have stopped meetings between prisoners and their friends or families (mulaqats). But there is still frequent movement of prison staff, visitors, vendors, service providers and prisoners that threatens to endanger communities inside and outside prisons.

COVID deaths

In June, Kanwar Singh, 62, who did not have any symptoms, died in his sleep at the Mandoli Jail in Delhi. He was later found to be COVID-positive. A judge of the Karkardooma District Court who examined his body for inquest proceedings had to go into home quarantine. The senior citizens’ barrack where Kanwar Singh had been lodged had 29 other inmates. All of them were tested after Kanwar Singh’s death, and 17 of them tested positive. One of them was Mahender Yadav, 70, a former Congress MLA, who developed symptoms and succumbed to the infection soon after. His family alleged that the police did not inform them of his hospitalisation after he tested positive. The Supreme Court had refused to entertain a plea for interim bail on the grounds that Mahender Yadav was in intensive care (ICU) after testing positive.

Mahender Yadav’s was the sixth reported COVID death in an Indian prison. Four deaths were reported from prisons in Maharashtra, the worst affected State. So far, 2,191 COVID-19 cases have been identified in prisons across India. But the actual numbers of cases sand fatalities are suspected to be much higher, according to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

A legal expert speaking on condition of anonymity spoke of how intertwined communities inside and outside prisons were with each other. “It is all the more reason why policymakers should take care of the prison population. If not from the angle of humanitarian concern, then at least out of self-interest,” the legal expert said.

The case of Guwahati Central Jail

The situation is especially bad in Guwahati Central Jail, where as many as 435 inmates have been infected. The entire prison was declared a containment zone in the second week of July. Soon after, a letter written in Assamese by an inmate describing conditions in the jail was thrown outside prison gates from a bus that was transporting COVID-positive prisoners to another facility. The writer, who identified himself as Dudul Das, claimed that though 95 per cent of the inmates were infected not all of them were tested. “Even after we tested positive, nothing has been done regarding treatment or diet...Both positive and negative patients are staying together. Two people are sleeping in a two-feet space. More than 50 inmates have been made to sleep in a single room...When asked, the jail authorities said they knew nothing [about it]…” he wrote. The letter concluded in English, “Please save us, we are also human being and not a bluddy [sic] ghost!”

Dissatisfaction among prisoners was high even before this call for help surfaced. In the last week of June, almost all inmates of Guwahati Central Jail went on a two-day hunger strike after several letters to the jail authorities demanding better health-care facilities went unanswered. They demanded that new inmates be quarantined before they were assigned cells to share with existing inmates. They also demanded regular supply of clean drinking water and visiting rights for lawyers and others to be restored with COVID-19 protocols.

Political prisoners

Several political prisoners, including Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) leader Akhil Gogoi, his associates Bittu Sonowal and Dhaijjya Konwar and Jawaharlal Nehru University student Sharjeel Imam, are incarcerated in the same prison as Dudul Das is. All of them have reportedly tested positive for COVID. Sharjeel, who was to be brought to Delhi by the Special Cell of Delhi police, will now not be transported until he is cured of the infection. Manas Konwar, president of the student wing of the KMSS, who was released on bail, told the press that the prison conditions were deplorable. In December 2018 the prison had an occupancy rate of 93.5 per cent, but the inmate population had surged in the past two years. It currently operates at more than 100 per cent of its capacity, which is for 1,000 inmates.

Eight of the 12 accused in the Bhima Koregaon case– Mahesh Raut, Anand Teltumbde, Sudhir Dhawale, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Surendra Gadling, Gautam Navlakha and Rona Wilson–are in Taloja Jail in Mumbai where a thousand inmates have reportedly displayed COVID-like symptoms. Professor Hany Babu, who is currently in NIA custody, is expected to be transferred to Taloja Jail. But in the absence of systematic testing and information sharing with the lawyers, family members of the accused are a worried lot.

On March 23, the Supreme Court directed the States and Union Territories to constitute a high-powered committee to determine the categories of prisoners to be released on interim bail, parole or furlough to reduce overcrowding in prisons. While Assam said it would release 3,550 prisoners in order to decongest, it had released only 722 prisoners until July 23, according to CHRI.

Sanjoy Hazarika, who is CHRI’s International Director, took up the issue of the delay in arranging medical help for human rights defenders, including Akhil Gogoi and Varavara Rao in Maharashtra. He said: “Both had known existing ailments and co-morbidities and were hospitalized only after they tested positive. Till that time, they had been held inside prisons without adequate precautions. This is part of a larger wave of infections affecting other prisoners, who are similarly placed and continue to be at risk of contracting COVID-19. Factors like confined space, overcrowding, poor health and sanitary conditions, underlying health conditions like TB, HIV, hepatitis make the prison population extremely vulnerable to contracting and spreading the virus.”

Prof. G.N. Saibaba, who is lodged in Nagpur Central Prison, informed his family that despite preventive measures undertaken by the prison authorities, there had been an uncontrolled outbreak of COVID-19 with hundreds of prisoners, both convicts and undertrials, and even jail guards getting infected. His family was quoted in the media as having said that the infection was widespread and that “barrack after barrack” was infected. The family also reportedly said that one prisoner tested positive after all 20 prisoners of the jail’s “Anda” cell were tested on July 8. The family says that it is only a matter of time before Saibaba gets infected. Saibaba was convicted in 2017 for having Maoist links.

The National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD), a non-governmental organisation, sought the National Human Rights Commission's intervention to shift Saibaba to a hospital for treatment. NPRD general secretary Muralidharan said in a letter to the NHRC that Saibaba, who was 90 per cent disabled, was highly susceptible to the virus and that a COVID infection might prove dangerous and fatal for him.

Experts’ opinions

Dr Lokendra Dave, a pulmonologist from Bhopal, said prisoners in general did not enjoy good health because of undernutrition. “Tuberculosis, respiratory diseases like asthma and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], diabetes and cardiac issues are widely prevalent in the prison population. Mental issues like depression and suicidal tendencies and poor immune response of the body are also common. It is important that their nutritional needs, co-morbidities and immune status are addressed, apart from overcrowding, in order to curb the pandemic in jails,” he said.

He proposed that the following steps should be taken: a daily record of prisoner health should be maintained; CBNAAT (Cartridge Based Nucleic Acid Amplification Test) laboratory facilities should be installed on prison premises to ensure fast testing; pool sampling should be applied for tests; a diet high in proteins and Vitamins C and D should be provided to prisoners; co-morbidity analysis should be undertaken for inmates and safety protocols such as physical distancing, wearing of masks and washing of hands should be enforced. (In pool sampling, samples from a group of people are tested together in a single tube; the samples need to be individually tested only if the result is positive.)

Dr Gagan Shrivastava, a cardiac anaesthetist from Fortis Hospital in Delhi, echoed these views and said that barracks should be regularly cleaned and prisoners should be asked to sleep head to toe rather than mouth to mouth. Periodic health check-ups of prisoners with regular monitoring of their health status should also be undertaken by the prison authorities, he said. While it was nearly impossible to maintain social distancing or hygiene measures as ordered by the government or World Health Organisation, it was important to segregate new entrants for ten to 14 days before allowing them to mingle with other prisoners, he said.

Prison administrations are taking standard precautionary measures, but these are inadequate. Dr Gagan felt that preventive measures such as stopping the mulaqat altogether further compromises prisoners’ mental well-being. Not allowing prisoners visits by their lawyers or loved ones creates anxiety, especially in a situation of confinement. Dr Gagan suggested that visiting hours could be specified and the meetings regulated with certain protocols in place, he said.

After the Supreme Court’s directive on the decongestion of prisons, States such as Chhattisgarh, Goa, Haryana, Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi took proactive steps to address the issue. But some States, Bihar for instance, did not act on the directive. The prison administration in Bihar created sub-jails to isolate new entrants.

CHRI and the Madhya Pradesh Prisons & Correctional Services organised a “virtual” national consultation on “Prisons and Ensuring an Effective Response to Covid-19”. Prison administrators from 15 States shared their strategies and challenges on combating the virus. Restricting or altogether stopping the mulaqats, spraying disinfectants, providing kaadha (ayurvedic drink) and homoeopathy medicines and mass screening (in Punjab) were some of the steps taken by them.

Pravin Kumar Sinha, Additional Director General of Prisons, Punjab, said that social distancing could not be maintained in prisons. “The only way to control the pandemic was to chase the virus,” he said. Sandeep Goyal, Director General of Prisons, Delhi, said that the pandemic had showed that the concept of barracks was now obsolete and it was time to think of single cells for prison inmates.

APPEAL, a non-profit organisation dealing with legal issues, has demanded temporary or early release of prisoners convicted of non-violent offences whose appeal applications have passed the single judge screening stage (via bail); prisoners on remand charged with non-violent offences; prisoners aged over 70; prisoners with pre-existing serious health conditions, including heart or lung disease, diabetes; immuno-suppressed prisoners suffering from cancer, HIV, or autoimmune diseases; pregnant women prisoners; prisoners in Mother and Baby units; and all prisoners in Category D minimum security open prisons with staff deployed to other prisons to boost capacity.

According to India Justice Report 2019, much of the overcrowding in prisons is on account of the presence of undertrials. If anything, the pandemic makes a strong case for the Indian justice system to review its prison policies and release low-risk prisoners who pose no threat to society.

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