Fifty two-year-old Ravi, a taxi driver who drove around tourists in Navi Mumbai, landed in Taloja Central Jail in November after he was arrested by Maharashtra police on charges of stealing a car battery.

When the coronavirus pandemic began to spread in the state in March, Ravi shared a prison cell with 55 other inmates. Between them, there were only four toilets and one drinking water tap. Maintaining physical distance was nearly impossible, he said.

“There was no space to sleep,” he said. “There was just a distance of one foot between us.”

While the prison authorities distributed masks to the inmates, they did not give them bathing soap or detergent, Ravi said. “My wife would get it [soap and detergent] for me,” he said. “Others had to buy it from the canteen.”

Moreover, he claimed that at least 50 new inmates were pouring into the jail daily. “There was no space to keep them separately,” he said.

Concerned about getting infected with Covid-19, Ravi confessed to the crime he was accused of during a court hearing. The district judge granted him a release since he was nearing the end of his six-month prison sentence, he said. He walked of prison on April 29.

His release comes at a time when prison authorities across India have been asked by the Supreme Court to decongest prisons to curb the spread of Covid-19.

India’s jails are overcrowded, with the prison occupancy rate at 115.1% in 2017, according to the Prison Statistics of India report. Nearly 69% of the prisoners were undertrials while the remaining were convicts. Uttar Pradesh’s prisons were the most crowded at 165%, followed by Chhattisgarh at 157.2% and Delhi at 151.2%.

Prisoners in Allahabad await release on parole at the end of March amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP

The main reason for overcrowding is the large number of undertrials waiting for their cases to be disposed of, said Vijay Raghavan, a professor at Centre for Criminology and Justice, Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Project Director, Prayas, a non-profit that works towards prison reform.

“We have a huge pendency of cases in courts primarily because of a poor judge-population ratio and the fact that we do not have effective legal aid services in our country,” Raghavan said.

While the overcrowding in prisons is a concern even during normal times, concern has been heightened as the novel coronavirus spreads in India. Already, in several states, both prison authorities and inmates have tested positive for the virus. In Delhi, one inmate has died of Covid-19. This, despite the Supreme Court giving directions for prisons to be decongested as early as March 23.

Setting guidelines

The Supreme Court directed all states and Union Territories to form high-powered committees chaired by a High Court judge to oversee the process of decongesting jails. The committees were tasked with laying down criteria under which prisoners could be released.

While Jharkhand and Rajasthan decided to simply move prisoners to less crowded jails, Uttar Pradesh released over 11,000 undertrials and convicts on interim bail or parole.

In Maharashtra, the committee decided to release half of the state’s 17,000 prisoners on interim bail or parole for 45 days. The decision was made after 185 cases of the virus were detected at Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail in early May.

By mid-June, 36 temporary jails were identified across 27 districts of Maharashtra to house “high risk” inmates as well as serve as quarantine facilities for new inmates till they could be shifted to Taloja Central Jail.

But the conditions of these temporary jails came under the spotlight on June 22 after the partner of rights activist Gautam Navlakha, who is accused in the Elgaar Parishad case, said the temporary jail where he was housed – a school in Kharghar, Navi Mumbai – had 350 inmates in six classrooms with three toilets, seven urinals and one common bathing space.

Describing the conditions in the Kharghar school in a letter to his lawyer, another inmate said:“We are living like animals here.”

The case of Delhi prisons

While Maharashtra created temporary jails to decongest prisons, Delhi adopted another approach, with results that are just as mixed.

Delhi has 16 jails with a capacity to house 10,026 inmates. When the lockdown started, there were around 17,500 inmates in these 16 jails spread across three complexes, Tihar, Rohini, Mandoli, Delhi’s Director General of Prisons Sandeep Goel told

Goel is part of the committee headed by Delhi High Court Judge Hima Kohli that laid down the criteria under which undertrial prisoners and convicts could be let out on interim bail, emergency parole or remission of sentence.

On April 18, the committee decided to extend interim bails to those inmates who are kidney cancer and HIV patients, or suffer from tuberculosis and asthma. On May 18, the committee decided to further expand the scope of the 45-day interim bail to include undertrials accused of murder, culpable homicide and theft, among other charges, provided they had spent a certain number of years in jail. On June 20, this was further extended to those undertrials accused of domestic violence and dowry deaths.

Based on these criteria, 4,129 inmates were released from all three jails, as of June 20. This reduced the number of inmates in all 16 jails to 13,677 – still significantly higher than capacity.

Infection spread remains a worry: 36 prison staff and 20 inmates across the three jails have tested positive for the virus, the minutes of the committee’s June 20 meeting noted. A 62-year-old inmate was found dead in Mandoli jail on June 15 while he was asleep. A test showed he was Covid-19 positive.

A staff member's temperature is checked at Jabalpur's Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose central jail in April. Credit: Uma Shankar Mishra/AFP

Capacity for fresh inmates

A major challenge for prisons is the influx of new inmates, who could bring in infection from outside.

To minimise such risk, the Delhi committee initially asked jail authorities to place new inmates in isolation for 14 days after thermal screening and medically examination, to ensure that they didn’t mingle with older inmates. To ensure this, the Delhi jail authorities converted two blocks each in Tihar and Mandoli into isolation wards for new inmates.

On May 18, the committee recommended new entrants be kept in “separate cells in isolation” for 14 days. In keeping with this, 248 individual cells with attached toilets in a jail in the Mandoli complex have been made into isolation cells as of June 20.

Jail authorities, however, say the flow of new inmates has outpaced their efforts.

On a daily basis, prisons in Delhi receive an average of 100 new inmates, Goel said. Since the lockdown began, this number has reduced to 80 new inmates on an average. Keeping one new inmate in one isolation cell is not possible, he said.

“In one cell there would be two to three people,” he said. “But if there is someone with flu symptoms then we will keep them in a single cell.”

Along with this, if old inmates out on bail were to return, then they too would be considered as fresh inmates, and would need to be kept in isolation. This would increase the number of fresh inmates and pose a new set of challenges for prisons, Goel said.

“We are just able to manage,” he said. “If the intake increases and if it becomes 125 per day, it will be difficult to isolate them for 14 days.”

To increase capacity, jail authorities have identified police quarters in Mandoli as a “temporary jail” facility and had sought permission from the Delhi government to use it. These quarters consist of 360 flats that could be used to accommodate 1,800 fresh inmates, the minutes of the June 20 meeting of the committee recorded.

Taking note of the death of the inmate in Mandoli jail, the committee also decided to conduct rapid tests on fresh inmates and install oxygen concentrators in the jail hospital.

Lack of support

Many legal experts say releasing more prisoners, specially undertrials, remains the best way to avoid infection and deaths in prison.

But what happens to inmates after they are released from prison?

Ravi was released from Taloja Central Jail on April 29 around 7 pm. He neither had the money nor the means to get to his home in Khopoli nearly 50 km away since public transport facilities had been suspended.

Jail authorities did not arrange transport for him to go home. “They told me that they were doing me a favour by letting me go,” Ravi said.

That night, he walked 30 km to Panvel and spent the night at a bus stand. The next day, he managed to hitch a ride with a tempo driver who did not take any money from him.

After he reached home, a new challenge awaited him: Ravi found himself without work. Not only was the lockdown in force, his taxi was still in the custody of the police. Eventually, Ravi managed to get a contract job in a pharmaceutical factory. He earns Rs 700 per day, less than what he made driving a taxi.

Raghavan said there was no department or agency to look into the aftercare of prisoners. “Some of the released prisoners may not have a place to go after their release,” he said. He said states must appoint officers to help released prisoners rebuild their lives.