As India has climbed to the second spot in overall numbers of persons infected by COVID-19 across the world, the healthcare situation is deteriorating rapidly, especially in prisons. On 23 March, the Supreme Court ordered that state governments constitute “high-powered committees” to devise a criteria for granting interim bail or parole to undertrials and convicted inmates, respectively, to decongest prisons. Despite these measures, the governments and courts appear to be unable to control the crisis.
Prisons across India have shown high rates of infection, with those in Maharashtra being worst hit—with 2,061 inmates and 421 jail staff infected as of 23 September, and an increase of about thirty positive cases daily. In Andhra Pradesh, 928 prison inmates and 167 staff have tested positive across jails. Most states have not made this data available, but reports of outbreaks have been coming out from across the country.
Several public-interest litigations have been filed across various high courts to find a better approach to the problem. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has refrained from monitoring the implementation of its March orders. To tackle the COVID-19 situation in prisons, four important measures are needed: reducing the quantum of arrests; increasing access to early bail; improving health infrastructure; and decriminalisation of poverty and marginalisation. The case of Madhya Pradesh, where we work as criminal lawyers and researchers, shows the urgent need for these interventions.