The Covid-19 pandemic is throwing up new challenges every day. One issue that is yet to come to public notice is the danger it poses to people in custody. At best, it is seen as a possible risk. But the extent of the risk is far from being understood.

The United States and Iranian prisons have released a large number of prisoners as a preventive measure. In India, we are staring at a possible disaster, unless we take urgent steps. Firstly, our prisons are overcrowded, with nearly 70% undertrials – a floating population – and new admissions taking place on a daily basis.

On March 16, the Supreme Court took suo moto cognisance of the issue and asked state governments to file affidavits regarding the steps being taken to prevent the spread of the disease in prisons and juvenile homes. In response to the public interest litigation, some states have decided to release a large number of undertrials on bail, especially those arrested for less serious offences. For example, Maharashtra and Punjab have decided to release 5,000-plus undertrials each on bail.

However, one does not know much about the plans made for child care institutions, especially for children in conflict with law.

In its orders passed on March 23, the apex court asked state governments to release prisoners arrested in offences where maximum sentence is less than seven years or where the prisoners to sentenced to less than seven years on provisional bail or parole. It also asked states to constitute a high-powered committee, chaired by the Chairperson of the State Legal Services Authorities, to release prisoners who can be released based on criteria decided by them. Moreover, it has asked the Undertrial Review Committees at the district levels to meet every week to consider releasing under trials on bail or a personal recognisance bond.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court directed the authorities to ensure that none of the prisoners released are stranded because of the 21-day lockdown, It said that they should be provided transportation to reach their homes or he given the option to stay in temporary shelter homes for the period of lockdown.

Jailed populations

If it is imperative to decongest the prison to maintain social distancing, we suggest that eligible prisoners should be released on bail or parole – depending on whether they are undertrials or convicts – and kept in makeshift temporary shelters with provisions for water, sanitation and food facilities till the lockdown is lifted.

While releasing undertrials on bail and personal recognisance bonds needs to be urgently, this alone will not solve the problem at hand. The hygiene and sanitation facilities in custodial institutions are appalling, to say the least. As per the Model Prison Manual 2016, prisons are supposed to build toilets at the ratio of one per 10 inmates during night time and one per six inmates during day time.

Maharashtra and Punjab have decided to release 5,000-plus undertrials each on bail. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Most prisons across the country do not have sufficient number of toilets and very few follow the Model Prison Manual guidelines. Apart from overcrowding, the other reason for lack of hygiene in custodial institutions is the lack of sufficient water supply. Shortfalls in provision of washing and bathing soaps may add to the problem.

With respect to women in custody, adequate supply of sanitary napkins needs to be ensured – something that is a pre-existing problem. The situation is similar in women’s institutions like short-stay homes for women in distress or protective homes for rescued women.

Other institutions

While prison conditions are visible in the public domain, women and children’s institutions and beggars’ homes suffer from complete neglect. There is a Dickensian air to our shelter homes and the Muzzafarpur Shelter Home case, exposed by the social audit conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ Koshish team, only reveals a larger malaise in our custodial institutions. State authorities need to release as many people as possible locked up in shelter homes like these.

There are various provisions in the law whereby such temporary or long-term release is possible. For example, children in conflict with the law, except those arrested in heinous offences, can be released on bail to take care of their families. However, releasing people may not always be an option for those who suffer from mental health issues, have been abandoned and have nowhere to go, have forgotten their addresses, or whose families refuse to accept them.

Prevention of the pandemic in these circumstances is possible by following strict sanitation protocol, maintaining personal hygiene, and enhancing the immunity of the residents. Most people reaching these institutions are battling old age or illnesses and have very low immunity. Food items rich in nutritional value can be distributed, like black gram, jaggery, nuts, and fruits rich in Vitamin C should be added to their diet.

For beggars’ homes, people are arrested for the offence of begging and sentenced to years of detention, ranging from one year to 10 years, varying from state to state. In the context of the current situation, the implementation of beggary laws can be suspended till the situation returns to normal. For those who might worry about increase of beggars, it should be noted that last year, the Delhi High Court and later the Jammu and Kashmir High Court decriminalised beggary, declaring begging as an act of destitution, and terming criminalisation of begging as unconstitutional.

Women and children’s institutions particularly suffer from complete neglect. Credit: Manob Chowdhury

The other issue that needs to be highlighted is the working conditions of the institutional staff. The India Justice Report 2019 highlights that there are between 30-40% vacancies across the three pillars of our criminal justice system – police, prisons and the judiciary. The coronavirus scare is putting additional pressure on them in terms of taking extra precautions for themselves and for the people in their custody. There is an urgent need to appoint additional staff on contract basis, especially at the level of caretaking and medical staff. Civil defense teams are trained to handle disaster and emergency situations. Some of these teams may be deployed in assisting the prisons and institutional staff in implementing the prescribed sanitation plan as advised by the health department and other agencies.

Simple solutions like providing masks to the staff and prisoners, installing wash basins with hand wash bottles at the main gate entrance and entrance to all barracks and cells, increasing water supply through water tankers, and keeping the toilets and the premises clean by appointing housekeeping staff on contract basis would go a long way in boosting the confidence of the staff and inmates while preventing the spread of the disease. It is important that government communicates in a clear manner that it values people who maintain these institutions and ensure the safety and protection of institutional populations.

Vijay Raghavan is Professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice, School of Social Work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and Project Director at Prayas, a field action project working with undertrial prisoners and custodial populations.

Mohammed Tarique is Assistant Professor at Director’s Office, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and Project Director, Koshish, a field action project working with homeless and destitute populations and persons arrested under the beggary laws.s