How Maharashtra’s jails stayed free of Covid-19Updated: Nov 11, 2020, 23:37 IST
From facing flak for its initial handling of the Covid-19 situation to coming up with a proactive approach which kept the cases and fatalities low, the state prisons department has put up a strong fight against the coronavirus disease, feel experts, considering how social distancing in overcrowded jails doubled the challenge.
As of Wednesday, there were 60 active cases among the 28,590 inmates in 43 prisons across the state. Six inmates have died of Covid so far. Around 534 staff members working at the jails tested positive, of whom 511 recovered, while seven succumbed.
Sunil Ramanand, additional director general (prisons), admitted there was panic among prisoners in the initial days of the outbreak, but later the prison administration managed to prevent the spread.
The 43 jails in the state had population of 36,000 prisoners. As part of the decongestion drive, many prisoners facing non-serious crimes were allowed to go home on court’s order. Those out on bail were asked not to return to jail. Those released on emergency parole could stay out till the time government revoked the Epidemic Act and Disaster Management Act and lifted the lockdown completely. Consequently, the number of inmates in the state prisons came down to 28,590.
A prison officer from Pune headquarters said strict lockdown was imposed in every prison after the first case was reported in a prison in the state was reported in Byculla jail on May 31, then Satara prisons and then the outbreak in Arthur Road prison in June.
The staff and officials posted at all prisons were not allowed to go out for a month. “Even the jail staff who lived in nearby quarters were not allowed to step out, fearing he/she may bring the contagion in the prison. The staff was on rotation every month,” the officer said. New prisoners are not allowed to directly enter the jails. They had to first compulsorily spend a 14-day quarantine stay outside at temporary prisons, after which they were lodged in the main prison, only after undergoing testing. “The state prisons department as of today has over 42 temporary prisons,” the officer said.
Testing was another key tool in this battle. The prison authority has so far conducted 26,740 tests across 43 central, districts and other jails. In these, 2,392 prisoners tested positive. Of them, 2,332 prisoners have recovered. “Overcrowded prisons were identified and testing was intensified. Maximum tests were carried out in Yerwada-Pune prison (3,197), followed by Taloja (2,919), Kalyan (1,603) and Thane (1,520),” said the officer.
Among other measures were giving homeopathic immunity boosting medicine such as Camphora to prisoners, encouraging prisoners to perform yoga and exercise, and enhancing the nutritional value of the food served, he said.
The six Covid fatalities were reported in prisons in Taloja in Navi Mumbai, Yerawada in Pune, Amravati and Dhule. The last Covid death of a prisoner was reported on August 10 in Vashimb, a jail official said. “Till date, six prisoners have lost their lives. In three months, there was no fatality,” said Ramanand. Another jail officer said, “Now, we are prepared to deal with a second wave, if need arises.”
Raja Bagga, senior researcher, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said, “The role of high-powered committee constituted under the directions of the SC in trying to reduce overcrowding and Ministry of Home Affairs’ detailed guidelines issued in May 2020 have been important and timely to address the pandemic in prisons.”