If overcrowding of prisons has been a perennial problem in this country, high occupancy levels can only mean bad news amidst a pandemic. The Supreme Court has been intervening from time to time to address this problem, but its latest order directing the interim release of eligible prisoners acquires salience in view of the uncontrolled second surge in the raging pandemic. Last year, the Court had passed such an order quite early — the one of March 23, 2020 came even before the nation-wide lockdown. The Court had then ordered all States to take preventive steps as well as constitute high-powered committees to determine the class of prisoners who could be released on bail or parole for a specified period. In directing this week that besides identifying more prisoners for release, the same set of prisoners be given parole this year too, the Court continues its trend of seeking to protect prisoners as well as those guarding them from getting infected. There have been significant initiatives to prevent any uncontrollable spread within the congested jails, ranging from stopping the practice of transporting remand prisoners to court for periodical extension of custody and hearings to asking authorities to prepare readiness and response plans. The Court’s order is welcome, both as a move to decongest jails and a measure that protects the right to life and health of the prisoners. Now that the issue of reducing occupancy in the prison is once again under focus, and not merely for the usual reason of overcrowding, but also in view of the vulnerability of prisoners and prison staff to infection and disease, a comprehensive look at imprisonment practices in the country may be in order.
There have been reports of prisoners testing positive and getting hospitalised. How far the regular testing and medical treatment available to inmates across the country is effective is unclear. Further, even political prisoners, such as those jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case without any direct link to any act of violence, are being repeatedly denied bail, solely because stringent laws have been invoked against them. Some political activists in Delhi are also in jail under anti-terrorism laws for alleged complicity in riots early last year. The courts must take into account their vulnerability to infection and consider bail. In its order, the Supreme Court has rightly emphasised the need to adhere to the norms it had laid down in Arnesh Kumar vs State of Bihar (2014) under which the police were asked not to effect unnecessary arrests, especially in cases that involve jail terms less than seven years. In the past, the Court has also asked authorities in all districts in the country to give effect to Section 436A of the Cr.P.C., under which undertrials who have completed half of the maximum prison term prescribed for the offence may be released on personal bond. Effective follow-up action is needed to audit these measures so that these are not implemented selectively or arbitrarily.
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