Lawyer-activist Sudha Bharadwaj, an accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, has raised concerns about overcrowding of prisons and urged the judiciary to consider steps to decongest jails more seriously, the BBC reported on Tuesday.

Bharadwaj was released from Mumbai’s Byculla jail on December 9 after she was granted default bail. She spent more than three years behind bars. She was initially lodged in Pune’s Yerwada Central Jail and then was shifted to the Byculla jail.

Bharadwaj is not permitted to speak to the media about the case against her, as part of her bail conditions.

About the Byculla prison, Bharadwaj told the BBC that at one point, there were 75 inmates in her unit, which was built to house 35 persons. She said that a space “the size of a coffin” was designated for each inmate.

“Overcrowding becomes a source of fights and tensions,” the activist said. “There’s a queue for everything – food, toilets.”

Bharadwaj said that even during the coronavirus pandemic, most people did not get interim bail in order to return to their families. “The old and people suffering from co-morbidities must be given bail on personal bonds,” she said. “Quarantining inside the already overcrowded jails makes no sense.”

In March 2020, the Supreme Court had asked all states and Union Territories to set up high-level committees to consider releasing prisoners on parole or interim bail if they are accused of offences entailing up to seven years in prison.

In July 2021, the Supreme Court had directed that prisoners released with the objective of decongesting jails during Covid-19 should not be asked to surrender until further orders

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‘I am now living in a bigger jail’

As Bharadwaj cannot leave Mumbai, she cannot get back to her work as a professor with the National Law University, the BBC noted. She is also unable to go home to Faridabad, or visit her daughter in Bhilai in Chhattisgarh.

She said in her interview to the BBC that now has to search for work, and also find a house that she can afford. “From a smaller jail I am now living in a bigger jail, which is Mumbai,” she remarked.

The Bhima Koregaon case, in which Bharadwaj has been named as an accused person, pertains to caste violence in a village near Pune in 2018.

The National Investigation Agency has alleged that Bharadwaj and 15 others were part of a conspiracy to incite violence at the Bhima-Koregaon war memorial near Pune on January 1, 2018. One person was killed and several others were injured in the incident.

The first chargesheet in the case was filed by the Pune Police in November 2018, which ran to over 5,000 pages. It named activists Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, and Mahesh Raut, all of whom were arrested in June 2018.

The police claimed that they had “active links” with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), and accused the activists of plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

One of the accused, 84-year-old tribal rights activist Stan Swamy, died in custody in July. Swamy, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and also contracted the coronavirus infection while in prison, was repeatedly denied bail despite his deteriorating health condition.