The Indian Supreme Court has taken a humanitarian view of the four-lakh-plus prison population inside overcrowded jails even as the second wave of the pandemic continues its devastating run across the country.

“India has more than four lakh prison inmates. It is observed that some of the prisons in India are overburdened and are housing inmates beyond optimal capacity…. The requirement of decongestion is a matter concerning the health and right to life of both the prison inmates and the police personnel working,” the Bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, and comprising Justices L. Nageswara Rao and Surya Kant, stressed.

In a 14-page order released on Saturday, Chief Justice Ramana’s Bench ordered the police to take a leaf from the apex court’s judgment in the Arnesh Kumar case and limit arrests during the pandemic to prevent over-crowding in jails; especially not to order detention in a mechanical manner in cases involving punishment of less or upto seven years’ imprisonment.

It further ordered special committees or ‘High-Powered Committees’ constituted in most States and Union Territories to screen prisoners and release them on interim bail. In addition to these fresh releases, the court said prisoners who were released on interim bail during the 2020 surge should be freed again “forthwith”. Ninety percent of inmates released last year had returned to their prisons in February and March 2021.

Similarly, inmates who were given parole in 2020 should be released again on a 90-day parole in a bid to de-congest prisons, control infections and save lives within the prison walls.

“From limiting arrests to taking care of Covid-19 patients, there is a requirement for effective management of pandemic from within the prison walls so as to defeat this deadly virus,” the court emphasised.

More importantly, this time, the court took into consideration a situation where certain prisoners may be too scared to return home, though eligible for release on interim bail or parole, owing to their social circumstances or simply because they are afraid they may get infected with Covid-19 while outside. In such cases, the court ordered proper medical facilities, immediate treatment and regular tests for both inmates and jail staff. It said maintenance of daily hygiene in prisons should be put at a premium.

The Bench even ordered the State and prison authorities to transport the released prisoners to their homes so that they would not have any trouble in view of any curfew or lockdown.

Significantly, the court, addressing the government, said “the fight against the pandemic is greatly benefitted by transparent administration”.

It noted, in this regard, how the prison occupancy in Delhi is updated on official websites concerned. “Such measures are required to be considered by other States and should be adopted as good practice. Moreover, all the decisions of High-Powered Committees need to be published on respective State Legal Service Authorities/State Governments/High Courts websites in order to enable effective dissemination of information.”(The Hindu)


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