The Supreme Court on Monday asked all states and Union Territories to set up high-level committees to consider releasing prisoners or undertrials on parole or interim bail if they are accused of offences entailing up to seven years in prison, PTI reported. The order was issued to initiate the decongestion of jails amid the coronavirus pandemic that has infected 468 people in the country and killed nine.

Citing provisions under Article 21 of the Constitution, a bench comprising Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and Justices LN Rao and Surya Kant, said it was imperative to control the spread of the coronavirus in prisons.

The court said it will be the duty of the committee to select prisoners on the basis of the nature of their offence, the number of years of the sentence and the severity of the crime they were charged with, along with any other relevant factor they think is important. The court listed the matter for hearing after three weeks and asked all states and Union Territories who had not yet filed their responses to an earlier notice to do so.

The court also issued an order forbidding the presence of prisoners facing trial before the court. Citing the possibility of outside transmission, it said all necessary activities will be held through video conference instead. The routine transfers of prisoners will also be halted for now and will only be done to decongest jail premises for social distancing or for providing medical assistance to an inmate, the court said.

The court said no delays should be made in shifting sick prisoners to a medical institution. The top court also took cognisance of the steps taken by various states and Union Territories, including the shifting of over 11,000 prisoners to less congested prisons in Jharkhand.

Last week, the top court had observed that overcrowding in prisons across the country posed a risk amid the worsening health crisis caused by coronavirus, Bar and Bench reported. It said that while the government of India has issued an advisory for maintaining social distance, prisons across the country remain overcrowded. The court had issued show cause notices to prison authorities and social welfare departments of all states.

Meanwhile, the Aam Aadmi Party government told the Delhi High Court on Monday that it will provide convicts the options of getting special parole and furlough to reduce the risk of coronavirus infections in crowded prisons, PTI reported.

The government told a bench of Justices Hima Kohli and Subramonium Prasad that it will amend its prison rules to provide the options to convicts and a notification will be issued within a day. Taking note of the submission, the bench directed the government to take steps to implement its proposal.

The amended prison rules would provide for 60-day parole in case of unprecedented situations like an epidemic or a natural disaster or any other situation which mandates reducing of the population of the inmates, Delhi government’s lawyer Anuj Aggarwal told the court. The other rule would provide for temporary facility of a special furlough.

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The court also dismissed a petition moved by two lawyers seeking reduction of crowds in prisons in view of the coronavirus pandemic, saying that the matter had already been taken up by the Supreme Court.