When the COVID-19 pandemic started, there was initially some concern about crowding in Indian prisons. In an overpopulated, confined environment the risk of explosion of an infectious disease is always high. That is why, rights groups from several countries advocated for the decongestion of the prisons. Especially, in India, where poor health infrastructure in prisons added even more to the problem.

According to Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, around 4 per cent of prison staff and prisoners in India contracted COVID. Since May 2020 the number stands at least 19,724 with 22 deaths1. The actual figure may be higher, as we know even in the general population the number of cases recorded are actually only percentage of the real number of COVID cases. In the global context, up to May 2021, there were at least 550000 prisoners in 122 countries who had contracted COVID-19. Besides, there were reports of 4000 deaths from prisons in 47 countries2.

The occupancy of India’s prisons has always been a concern among human rights organizations. A slow judiciary and lethargy of the administration to modernize the correctional services results in piling up of the number of undertrial prisoners in the prisons of India

COVID Response Watch LogoFrom 112.1% in 2011 it rose to more than 118% by the end of 2020. As of 31 December 2020, there were 4.89 lakh persons lodged in 1,306 prisons across the country. The actual capacity of these prisons was 4.14 lakh persons. Further, overcrowding is a bigger problem for male prisoners since the occupancy rate of male prisoners was 121.3% while that of women was only 72.2%.

To get some perspective on how the prison population fared during the COVID-19 pandemic, we reached out to Hyderabad based political activist Anuradha. She was incarcerated in Chanchalguda special prison for women during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. “During COVID, in my experience there were no arrangements for decongestion. The government just gave orders for maintaining social distance etc. But except for some photo-shoots this was also not practiced and it is in a way is impossible to maintain social distance in prisons, with so many common facilities etc.”

According to Anuradha, the congestion in the Telangana prisons is a bit less if we compare it to many other parts of the country. But, this fact turned into a curse in disguise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, during the deadly second wave Supreme Court gave directives for the immediate decongestion of prisons, stressing the right to life of the huge prison population. After this some prisoner release took place. But that was grossly insufficient.

Anuradha told us, “Though the Supreme Court had ordered that under-trials facing non-serious crimes be released on bail to ease the congestion in Jails during COVID and many prisoners were in fact released from the jails in states like Maharashtra and even from neighboring Andhra Pradesh, the prison authorities in Telangana gave their opinion to the government that there is no congestion in the Telangana prisons and therefore there is no need for any release on those grounds.”

While it is true that Telangana fares better than the national average on the question of prison congestion, it is hardly enough to prevent an outbreak amidst a global pandemic. Actually, this decision proved fatal. During the early days of the lockdown, the functioning of the court was in chaos. Thus, the number of pending cases piled up. This can be proven by the fact that the occupancy in three of Central prisons of Telangana increased by 22.92% between 2019 and 2020 and jumped to 99.86%.

“It may be true that relatively the Telangana jails are less congested compared to some other prison. But that situation which applies to normal times does not hold any good during COVID times. So, the argument given by the authorities is a dubious one”, says Anuradha.

The reluctance of authorities to release prisoners was not exceptional in case of Telangana. The Covid period saw the reluctance of the State to release poet Varavara Rao despite his poor health. It saw the death of Stan Swamy, the well-known Adivasi rights activist, inside the prison. In West Bengal, on January 12,2022, Niyati Mahato, the mother of Buddhadeb Mahato wrotea letter to the civil rights organizations in order to save her son. Her son was arrested on 21 February 2010 on suspicion of Maoist activity. That time he was second year student at Silda College.

Almost twelve years have passed since then. He is still a undertrial prisoner. Moreover, he lost both his kidneys. His stay in prison during this dangerous time can be fatal. His mother alleged that the prison authority is not providing him with the regular medicines he needs to survive. He is currently lodged in the presidency central jail of Kolkata. In the letter his mother has mentioned, “If anything happens to my son, the jail authority will be responsible for that.”

According to a prisoner who contracted COVID (he chose to remain anonymous), “Even if the symptoms are mild, getting COVID inside the prison complex can become a traumatic event. You get further isolated. Your inmates stop coming in your vicinity even after the quarantine is over. They even tend to destroy your belongings. It is a complete paranoia.”

During our interview to Anuradha, we asked her about the health infrastructure in the prison. She told us that the prison she was lodged in had an eight-bed facility. There was one doctor who attended the patients six days a week, and a nurse who was available for emergencies. For any serious illness, they were usually taken to outside hospitals. But during COVID, the inmates became reluctant to go out in fear of contracting COVID.

Two drastic waves of the pandemic have passed. Even now, we are going through periodic surges in the number of cases. The prison population still continues to live in the fear of the pandemic without proper measures and safety, or even health infrastructure. How possibly can this situation be rectified? “The prisons could be decongested only if bail is given liberally. In so many cases the government could grant parole, furlough etc. for long period prisoners on grounds of good conduct”, suggests Anuradha.

Will it happen? The pandemic is not yet over. Future will show what the authorities have in mind to protect Indian citizens behind the bars.

Arka Deep is a researcher based in Bolpur, West Bengal


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