Supreme Court scan on jail virus risk
The Supreme Court on Monday issued notices to the states and Union Territories asking what measures they had adopted to prevent a coronavirus epidemic in their jails, which it said could become the most “fertile ground” for the spread of the infection.
India has 1,339 prisons with about 466,084 inmates. Most of the jails are overcrowded and some of them house several thousand prisoners.
The bench of Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and Justice L. Nageswara Rao raised the matter on its own and sought replies by March 20 on the steps taken at jails and juvenile remand homes. It posted the next hearing to March 23.
Justice Bobde, however, complimented the Kerala government and Tihar Jail authorities in Delhi for the measures they had already taken to prevent the spread of the virus among prisoners.
“While the Government of India advises that social distancing must be maintained to prevent the spread of (the) Covid-19 virus, the bitter truth is that our prisons are overcrowded, making it difficult for the prisoners to maintain social distancing,” Justice Bobde said, dictating the order in open court.
“According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the occupancy rate of Indian prisons is at 117.6 per cent (of capacity), and in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Sikkim, the occupancy rate is as high as 176.5 per cent and 157.3 per cent, respectively.
“Studies indicate that contagious viruses such as (the) Covid-19 virus proliferate in closed spaces such as prisons. Studies also establish that prison inmates are highly prone to contagious viruses. The rate of ingress and egress in prisons is very high, especially since persons (accused, convicts, detainees, etc) are brought to the prisons on a daily basis.
“Apart from them, several correctional officers and other prison staff enter the prisons regularly, and so do visitors (kith and kin of prisoners) and lawyers. Therefore, there is a high risk of transmission of the Covid-19 virus to the prison inmates.”
The bench noted that Kerala had set up isolation cells within its prisons where any inmate with a cold or fever is being moved.
“All the new inmates who will be admitted to prisons in Kerala will be isolated in the isolation cells in the admissions block for six days before… their entry into the regular prison cells,” it said.
“Similarly, an isolation ward has been set up in Tihar Jail, Delhi, and all the 17,500 inmates of the said jail were checked for Covid-19 and it was found that none displayed any (such) symptoms.”
The court added: “The authorities of Tihar Jail have also decided that new inmates will be screened and put in different wards for three days. However, we do not have information about the measures taken by the other state governments in their prisons….”