Prison Outbreak

How India is endangering vulnerable prisoners amid the COVID-19 outbreak

On 30 March, the Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad released several prisoners in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. Amit Dave / REUTERS
21 April, 2020

Indian prisons are highly overcrowded. As per the last count, put out by the National Crimes Record Bureau in 2018, the country has about four hundred and fifty thousand prisoners, a number that exceeds the official capacity by about seventeen percent. Prisons in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh have among the highest occupancy rates, over fifty percent above capacity. The COVID-19 pandemic has made Indian prisons and prisoners highly vulnerable, creating an urgent need to decongest them.

Therefore, on 16 March this year, a Supreme Court bench led by the chief justice, Sharad A Bobde, took suo motu cognisance of the situation. A week later, it ordered states and union territories to form high-powered committees for determining which class of prisoners could be released on parole or interim bail. Although the court delegated the responsibility of release to the committees, it suggested in the order that “the State/ Union territory could consider the release of prisoners who have been convicted or are under trial for offences for which prescribed punishment is upto 7 years or less.”  

The suggestion has been implemented rather blindly. In Delhi, a high-powered committee recommended the release on interim bail of undertrials in cases where the maximum punishment is ten years or less, as well as for women awaiting trial who had been in custody for 15 days or more. The committee expects about eight hundred prisoners to be released on the basis of these recommendations. Similarly, the Uttar Pradesh government decided to release on parole or interim bail eleven thousand prisoners who are in jail for offences where punishment is up to seven years. Maharashtra and Haryana, among other states, are following a similar criterion, releasing prisoners who are in jail for crimes that are considered less serious. 

The criteria offered as a suggestion by the apex court and then keenly appropriated by various states seems neither reasonable nor geared towards achieving its desired objective. It seems to suggest that convicts or under-trial prisoners who have been charged with minor crimes enjoy a right to health and life, whereas those who have been convicted or are awaiting trial for major offences do not. For instance, following the seven-year classification, a 70-year-old prisoner under trial for forgery who is highly vulnerable to the infectious disease would not be eligible for interim bail, while a 25-year-old under trial for theft would be. The criterion runs contrary to those being followed internationally.