In the national capital’s three prison complexes – Tihar, Mandoli and Rohini – 175 of 240 confirmed Covid-19 cases (72.9%) by August 30 were among jail staff and the rest (65 or 27.1%) were among inmates. Cases among inmates increased by 22.6% while those among staff increased by 108.3% in 58 days to August 30, according to data provided by said Sandeep Goel, the Director General of Prisons, Delhi. This was in contrast to the trend in jails across India where most Covid-19 cases were reported among inmates.

For instance, in Maharashtra, around 1,043 prisoners and 302 jail staff tested positive for Covid-19 by August 18. “Delhi is the only city wherein the number of infected jail staff is higher than the inmates,” said Sunil Gupta, former legal advisor for Tihar jail. “It looks like the infection spread in the staff’s residential quarters.”

In Delhi’s prisons, the most crowded in India as per newly-released data, the total number of Covid-19 cases spiked by 75.18% from 137 to 240 in 58 days to August 30, data show. “This, despite the fact that an awareness campaign was initiated on March 6 and the required precautions initiated as per the guidelines of the Indian Council of Medical Research,” said Goel, the Director General of Prisons. An intensive standard operating procedure had been put in place in the first week of April, well before the first Covid-19 case among inmates was reported on May 12.

“The national coronavirus doubling rate is more than 60 days but the situation can be much better inside jails because it is easy to identify and isolate infected persons to stop the spread,” said AK Gadpayle, professor of medicine in School of Medical Sciences and Research, Sharda University, Greater Noida and former medical superintendent of Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, Delhi.

The peculiar case of Delhi jails

Most of the personnel who contracted the infection were junior-level officers involved in checking and frisking of visitors and inmates, which exposed them to the infection. “These staffers were involved in security, cooking, maintenance, cleaning and other duties in the jail premises,” said an official requesting anonymity. “Despite their heightened risk of exposure to the virus, they were not initially asked to self-isolate themselves or quarantine away from colleagues.”

Although the first case detected was an inmate, they could have contracted the infection from a jail staffer, Goel said, adding, “It is not possible to identify the source of infection as many people visit jail premises from outside.”

Staff were leading “normal” lives in their quarters, mingling with families and travelling outside the jail premises, officials said. As a result, once contagion had set in, cases grew rapidly among the jail staff. By June, cases were cropping up among Tamil Nadu Special Police personnel, who take care of the jail’s security. Eventually, testing revealed 80 cases among Tamil Nadu Special Police personnel, of 240 cases by August 30.

“The disease spread as 20-30 Tamil Nadu Special Police personnel lived in a single barrack making social distancing difficult,” said Goel. On average, each barrack is about 1,140 sq ft, said a prison official. “We did the extensive testing of Tamil Nadu Special Police officials. All of them have recovered now,” said Goel.

Also feeding into the equation was the fact that many of the infected staff and their family members lived in Tihar Jail’s new, highrise residential complex. “The old residential complex has row houses while the new complex is in a multi-storey building. People living in multi-storey [buildings] are more prone to the infection as their exposure is higher,” said Gupta, Tihar’s former legal advisor.

Special cells were created to quarantine all personnel who had contracted Covid-19, said a senior prison official. Isolation wards were also set up in two jails for men and in one for adolescents and women. “A decongestion drive for prisoners had been launched in March,” the official said. “Some of the cells vacated after decongestion were used as quarantine facilities for the infected jail staff.” By June, the number of people living in barracks was also reduced to enable social distancing, the officer added.

Meanwhile, cases grew 22% among prisoners – from 53 to 65 in 58 days to August 30. Overcrowding and the consequent poor hygiene conditions contributed to this, experts say. “Overcrowding inside Indian jails has been a concern for a long time and in this medical crisis, it can lead to the spread of coronavirus infection among the inmates,” said Jugal Kishore, head of community medicine at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, who was part of a prison inspection team.

Source: Director General of Prisons, Delhi

At the same time, it is easier to control the spread of the novel coronavirus inside jails because outside contact is limited. “If the infected persons are identified at an early stage and are isolated, then the spread can be controlled effectively,” said Gadpayle of Sharda University. In contrast to the 75% increase in cases within Delhi prisons in 58 days to August 30, cases grew 457% across the country from 6,49,886 to 36,19,174. Usage of sanitisers and masks helped, too.

Contact tracing had been initiated on May 12 after the first case was identified, said Goel. “We made it compulsory for anybody living in the prison residential area to go into quarantine in case of any ILI [influenza-like illness] symptoms,” he said. “These staff members were not allowed to enter the jails. Neighbours and anyone who had been in touch with the affected staff were also quarantined and/or sent on leave.”

Despite taking several containment measures, the number of cases increased among the jail staff as they interact with the outside world and their families travel in and out of jail premises as needed,” he added.

In the first week of June, a special dispensary was set up at Tihar for testing. “Once we started the rapid antigen tests in June, the situation was completely brought under control,” claimed Goel. “We are testing every staff and their family members who complain of any symptom. Those above 55 and with comorbidities are kept in the special senior citizen barracks under medical observation,” he added.

Around 800 inmates and jail staff had been tested for the novel coronavirus by August 3, according to data accessed by IndiaSpend. Most of the 240 cases identified were asymptomatic, officials said. The situation inside Delhi jails was under control as of now, said Kishore, speaking to IndiaSpend on August 5, but added that there was a “huge scope for improving their hygiene levels”.

Decongestion drive

The Supreme Court on March 23 had asked all the states to form a high powered committee headed by a high court judge to prevent the spread of Covid-19 inside the jail premises. The committee in Delhi had asked the Director General, Prisons, to come with an action plan to fight the novel coronavirus, after which Goel submitted the 24-point standard operating procedure to the committee.

The apex court ordered a decongestion drive at all 1,350 prisons in the country. By December 31, 2019, Indian jails held 4,78,600 inmates, nearly 75,000 more than the sanctioned capacity, according to the 2019 Prison Statistics data released by the National Crime Records Bureau.

But Delhi’s jails remained overcrowded despite the decongestion drive. “There are 16 jails in the three prison complexes with a combined capacity of 10,026 prisoners but they house around 13,061 [as of now],” said Goel. Before the decongestion drive, there were 17,500 prisoners in Delhi’s jails, about 75% more than maximum capacity, prison data show.

India has an average prison occupancy rate of 118.5%. Delhi had the highest occupancy rate (174.9%) followed by Uttar Pradesh (167.9%) and Uttarakhand (159.0%) as on December 31, 2019, as per the NCRB data cited above.

As of July 31, 4,439 prisoners were released from Delhi’s prisons on interim bail or emergency parole as part of a decongestion drive following the orders of the Supreme Court, said Goel. “Of those released, 3,211 were undertrial prisoners, 1,165 were convicts released on emergency parole and 63 convicts on remission of sentence,” he added.

However, those released from prison said they felt safer inside the prison, given the rising Covid-19 numbers in the country. “Delhi’s jails are safer than the outside world during the pandemic,” said Diwakar Gupta, 56, a murder convict serving life imprisonment since 2001 at Mandoli jail, out on parole as part of the decongestion drive. “Jails are safer for people from lower-middle-class backgrounds as they cannot get the required medical attention outside if they are infected.”

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.