Last year, when the pandemic broke out, nearly 6,000 prisoners were released on special parole to ensure social distancing in jail.(HT file photo)
Last year, when the pandemic broke out, nearly 6,000 prisoners were released on special parole to ensure social distancing in jail.(HT file photo)

19 Tihar prisoners hospitalised after testing Covid positive, jail on high alert

A senior prison officer, who did not wish to be named, said it was suspected that a new asymptomatic inmate may have spread the infection. The jail staff, designated front line workers, has already been vaccinated
UPDATED ON APR 08, 2021 11:30 AM IST

At least 19 prisoners in the Tihar Jail have tested positive for Covid-19 and are admitted to different city hospitals, senior prison officials who were aware of the matter said, adding that the authorities were high alert and monitoring the health of all inmates.

A senior prison officer, who did not wish to be named, said it was suspected that a new asymptomatic inmate may have spread the infection. The jail staff, designated front line workers, has already been vaccinated.

However, with the number of inmates at its highest at 20,120 --- twice the jail’s sanctioned capacity of 10,026, experts have cautioned that immediate measures should be taken to decongest the prison so that adequate measures for isolating new inmates before being transferred to barracks are taken and social distancing is observed. Experts suggested that the government may consider releasing convicts on special parole and interim bail like last year when prisoners were released after the pandemic broke out.

Last year, when the pandemic broke out, nearly 6,000 prisoners were released on special parole to ensure social distancing in jail. However, between February 6 and March 18, almost all have surrendered, leaving little space for isolation of suspected cases and new inmates, a second prison officer, who did not wish to be named, said.

“With prison population increasing daily, breaking new records, it will be difficult to create space for isolation.The government should at least release those convicts who had surrendered on time in February,” the officer said.

Advocate Ajay Verma, former convener of the National Forum for Prison Reforms -- a group of lawyers that fights for implementation of reforms across prisons — said, “The government should immediately start work on decongesting the jail. Prisoners who surrendered in February and March could be sent back temporarily again on parole on interim bail. If such prisoners did not pose a threat when they were out for nearly 10 months, why would they be a threat again. It is important to have social distancing in prison.”

A second officer, who also requested to remain anonymous, said with thousands of prisoners who were released on special parole last year being back in jail, the situation has worsened. “We are on high alert and monitoring the health of all inmates. Between February 6 and March 18, around 6,000 prisoners surrendered after staying out of the jail for nearly a year. These prisoners were released on special parole and interim bail last year when the pandemic broke out, as one of the first measures to decongest the prison. During the first three waves of the infection, they were all out. It is an unfortunate coincidence that they have returned while the cases have started rising again,” the officer, who is also involved in the Covid containment measures, said.

Until February, when the 6,000-odd prisoners were out on Covid-19 parole and interim bail, the prison department designated jail number 2 in Tihar complex and another jail at Mandoli for isolating new inmates. But now, these jails are packed with prisoners.

Director general (prisons) Sandeep Goel confirmed that 19 prisoners have tested Covid-19 positive and were admitted to different hospitals in the city.

“As a precaution, we have admitted the prisoners to hospitals. The prison population has crossed 20,000 but we are taking all possible measures within the jail complex to ensure social distancing. Our officers are at work round-the-clock and checking for possible symptoms among prisoners.We conduct an extensive medical examination of all inmates once arrive at the prison. Those who show any flu-like symptoms are immediately quarantined,” the director general said.

Officials said a separate drive to vaccinate prisoners above 45 years of age is also on. Until Tuesday evening, at least 161 prisoners above 45 have been vaccinated, they added. The jail hospital in sub-jail number 3 has been designated as a vaccination centre.

Former Tihar law officer, Sunil Gupta, who worked in the prison for more than three decades, said, “It is important to decongest the prison. We have in the past used school buildings as temporary jails. If the population is now over 20,000, the authorities should not take any chances. During the Emergency, when the prison population was increasing, the jail administration had set up tents and created more spaces within the prison complex. Some steps have to be taken immediately.”

Till date, two prisoners have died of Covid-19. As many as 293 jail officials, including the director general Goel, were infected but they have all recovered. At least 139 prisoners have been infected till date, according to the prison’s Covid data.

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