Very sorry state of affairs: HC on Covid-19 tests in Maharashtra prisons
A division bench of the Bombay high court (HC) on Tuesday expressed displeasure over the lack of Covid-19 testing of prisoners in Maharashtra.
The bench of chief justice Dipankar Datta and justice KK Tated accepted the argument advanced on behalf the public interest litigation (PIL) petitioner, Mumbai chapter of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) – the largest and the oldest human rights organisation in India – that the number of tests on inmates of correctional homes across Maharashtra was abysmally low. The court noted that the state needed to adopt corrective measures.
“The report of the ADG (prisons) reveals a very sorry state of affairs,” said the bench, commenting on a report submitted by the additional director general (ADG) of police (prisons) revealing statistical information about the prevalence of Covid-19 in prisons across Maharashtra and steps taken to contain the spread of the contagion in jails.
ADG Sunil Ramanand in his report to the HC had submitted that prion authorities had conducted 17,695 screenings of inmates and jail staff since the Covid-19 outbreak. After the screenings, swab tests were conducted for 1,681 inmates and staff, of which 269 inmates and 73 jail staff tested positive for the Covid-19 virus.
The judges were annoyed to note that at least four under-trial prisoners died in prisons and swab samples collected after their death revealed that the deceased were suffering from Covid-19.
PUCL had moved HC, complaining that there was a complete lack of transparency as regards the condition of prisoners and preparation of prisons to deal with a calamity like Covid-19, which has resulted in panic and concern amongst the community, family members of prisoners, and their lawyers. The petitioner sought orders to provide information regarding the health and Covid-19 status of inmates to their family members and advocates on record.
It also sought directions to ensure that inmates have ample access to face masks, hand sanitiser, soap, and cleaning supplies at no cost. Maintaining that prisoners should enjoy the same standards of healthcare that are available to the outside community, the petitioner body prayed for a report from prison authorities detailing measures taken for prevention and control of the spread of Covid-19 in prisons.
Noting that the ADG (prison) also stated that there was no sufficient space to quarantine prisoners who have tested positive for Covid-19, the court has now asked advocate general Ashutosh Kumbhakoni to appear in the matter. It has also requested state authorities to ask district collectors concerned to identify suitable space for quarantining prisoners.
The bench has also called for details such as the capacity of prisons to house under-trial prisoners, actual number of such prisoners lodged in jails across Maharashtra, number of inmates who have crossed the age of 60 years, etc.
The PIL will come up for further hearing on June 19.