People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) expresses concern at the directions of the Supreme Court on 1 March and the last resolution passed by the High Powered Committee (HPC) in Delhi on 17 February whereby it has been decided that all prisoners who were released as part of the decongestion measures owing to the public health crisis will now have to surrender. Around a thousand convicts who had been released on emergency parole had already been asked to surrender from 7 February onwards. These directions have put the prisoners at an increased health risk as they will now have to go back to overcrowded prisons of the city.
Attempts to switch the functioning of all institutions back to pre-lockdown times are being made, but with strict anti-pandemic protocols. However, the same parameters cannot be applied for our prison system because of the problem of overcrowding. PUDR had earlier also noted with concern that even after measures were taken to decongest, the prisons were still running at a capacity of 160 percent during the third wave of Covid-19. Only around 5000 prisoners had been let off last year out of 17000, leaving the jails still overcrowded. With physical distancing and safety protocols being absolutely essential, all the more so now as the number of cases are once again increasing and new strains of Covid-19 have emerged, it is inconceivable how these precautions will be exercised if prisoners are asked to surrender.
In this situation, the focus of the HPC on building temporary jails to house surrendering prisoners for first 14 days is entirely misplaced. With one surrendered convict already having tested positive at Tihar, it is essential that all adequate safeguards be provided to ensure that the surrendered prisoners don’t contract Covid-19 because of the insanitary conditions within the jail. Equally in coming from outside they could be bringing the infection with them, thus putting the health of inmates and staff within the jail at risk. Given the context of the pandemic and the absence of will on the part of administration to change prison conditions, the State is not in line with the Constitutional obligation under Article 21 to ensure health and safety of all prisoners. On the contrary, paramilitary force is being deployed to ensure restriction of movement of prisoners and their “accessibility to balconies” to prevent their “escape” from prisons, as noted by the HPC.
While asking the prisoners to surrender, the HPC unfortunately has shown more concern about the impact of non-surrender on “social order”, rather than showing concern for the life and safety of prisoners. This concern also overlooks the very serious outcomes that could result in case the transmission of the virus goes out of hand. All possible scenarios of infection spreading need to be guarded against, of which the further congestion of prisons through surrender is one.
PUDR therefore demands that the directions for surrender of the remaining prisoners be deferred. Decongesting prisons to their actual capacity is a non-negotiable demand at all times in the interest of the prisoners’ Constitutional right to health and life, all the more so in the present circumstances. Any direction putting the health and lives of prisoners at risk must absolutely not be passed.
Radhika Chitkara, Vikas Kumar