Covid-19: Ensure prisons do not turn into a fertile ground for the virus
The coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic has reached India’s prisons. With their high occupancy rates and inadequate healthcare facilities, this is a disaster in the making. Many states are reportedly affected, with 492 infections and two deaths. For example, Delhi has 17 cases of infection, Gujarat 14, Haryana two, Maharashtra 199, MP 19, Odisha one, Punjab one, Rajasthan 125 and UP 10.
Since March, the Supreme Court (SC) and state authorities have taken measures to decongest prisons across the country. The National Legal Services Authority said in a recent report that more than 60,000 prisoners have been released since. However, with a prison population of over four lakhs, and new admissions every day, merely decongesting prisons is not enough. It is time to focus on the conditions inside prisons.
The hygiene and sanitation facilities in custodial institutions tend to be poor. The Model Prison Manual 2016 prepared by the ministry of home affairs recommends one toilet per ten inmates during the night and one for six during the day. (During lock-out times, prisoners are allowed to come out of their barracks for washing, bathing and fresh air). Reality, however, is far from this. The lack of enough bathrooms, water supply, and soap for bathing and washing are some of the reasons for the lack of overall hygiene in our prisons. These gaps, coupled with poor health care facilities, make prisons a fertile ground for the virus.
While facilities are inadequate, the lack of institutional staff despite posts being available means that effective implementation of anti-virus precautions in prisons is very difficult. The India Justice Report 2019, which analysed government data across four pillars of the criminal justice system (police, prisons, legal aid and the judiciary), indicated vacancies at between 30-40% in the institutional staff. As Covid-19-positive cases rise across prisons, state governments must urgently appoint additional staff, especially caretaking and medical, on a contractual basis.
Functionaries within the justice system are rarely trained to handle disaster and emergency situations, making prisons all the more vulnerable. This necessitates the deployment of adequately-trained civil defence teams. These teams can effectively assist prison administrators in implementing prescribed sanitation plans as advised by health departments and other agencies. Additionally, each prison should constitute a nodal medical committee to monitor the jail’s response to positive and suspected cases of Covid-19 among prisoners and staff, and to conduct contact tracing.
It is equally important that prisoners’ fundamental rights are protected – such as proper medical care, clean and hygienic surroundings, adequate diet, clean bedding and clothing, communication with family and friends, and effective legal representation.
We suggest the following steps to combat the spread of the pandemic within jails. One, prisons must ensure weekly visits by doctors. Two, all wards, barracks and common areas must be cleaned daily with water and disinfectant. Three, thermal thermometers should be supplied to monitor visitors and staff, and washbasins and hand wash facilities placed at entry and exit points. Four, additional mobile toilets should be set up (if required) as well as drinking and bathing water facilities augmented by water tankers. Five, sufficient supply of bathing and washing soaps as well as sanitary pads should be provided to women prisoners. Six, an improved diet must be provided to pregnant women, lactating mothers and children in prisons. Seven, a supply of cloth masks or gamchas and sanitisers for and prison staff must be ensured. Eight, new admissions to the prison should be screened and kept in an isolation ward for 14 days.
In a bid to check infections being inadvertently spread during prison visits, several states have placed a ban on visits by families and legal representatives. However, a few have made alternative arrangements for communication, providing telephone or video-calling facilities. The ministry of home affairs, in its May 2, 2020 advisory, too, had emphasised that “the facility of mulaqats, i.e., meeting between the prisoners and their family members, should be stopped till the pandemic is controlled. Video Conference and phone calls between inmates and his family members should be allowed.”
It’s natural for prisoners to be anxious about their family’s well-being. Prison administrators must ensure the availability of at least some mode of communication. It is also important to allow phone calls with prisoners’ lawyers to help them get a sense of the status of their case or bail application.
Prison administrations must take steps to reduce stress levels among prisoners as well as prison staff. A dedicated helpline facility for e-counselling services may be set up in coordination with the health department. Legal services authorities or non-governmental organisations working in the area may be requested to organise awareness camps or recreation sessions via video.
Concerted efforts must be made to mitigate the dangers of the pandemic’s spread among the custodial population. Governments must affirm their commitment to safeguard the rights of prisoners as well as prison staff, and take affirmative steps to ensure their safety and well-being.
Vijay Raghavan is a professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice, School of Social Work, TISS and project director, Prayas. Madhurima Dhanuka is programme head, Prison Reforms Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
The views expressed are personal