Maharashtra will grant temporary bail or parole to 50% of prisoners in prisons across the state during the coronavirus outbreak, PTI reported on Tuesday. There are currently 35,239 prisoners in the state’s jails. Five thousand undertrials have already been released.

The decision comes as the number of coronavirus cases inside jails has risen recently. Last week, 77 inmates and 26 police personnel at Mumbai’s Arthur Road prison tested positive for Covid-19. Maharashtra is also the country’s worst-hit state with 23,401 cases and 868 deaths so far.

According to Hindustan Times, the committee that made the decision said the prisoners being released will have to secure bail.

The committee was headed by Justice AA Sayed and included Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Sanjay Chahande and Director General of Prisons SN Pandey. It was set up after the Supreme Court in March asked all states and Union territories to decongest jails during the pandemic.

Chahande said that for temporary bail, eligible prisoners will have to approach the concerned court and obtain an order. “Parole leave can be secured at the prisons.”

The committee clarified that prisoners charged or convicted under provisions of special laws will not be granted temporary bail. These include the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crimes Act of 1999, the Maharashtra Protection of Interest of Depositors Act, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.

An advocate SB Talekar had argued that the decision to not release prisoners charged or convicted under special laws was discriminatory. However, the committee rejected his contention.

The committee also observed that Talekar did not disclose that two of his clients, Nitin Shelke and Madhukar Suryawanshi, are incarcerated in Harsul prison in Aurangabad for offences under the MPID Act, a Special Act, LiveLaw reported.

The two inmates had petitioned the Aurangabad High Court bench to challenge the committee’s order of March 25 in which it had denied parole for those booked under the Maharashtra Protection of Interest of Depositors Act. The High Court did not entertain their petition and on April 15, Talekar had withdrawn the petition with liberty to file a representation.

The committee said that the prisoners charged or convicted under special acts including the MPID Act cannot claim to be released from prison as of right. “It is required to be noted that the offences under MPID Act are against large number of victims who are mostly poor depositors, and whose interests are required to be safeguarded and recoveries made from properties,” it added. “The prisoners charged or convicted for offences under this act cannot be treated as belonging to the same class of prisoners who are to be released on interim bail or parole.”

In March, the Supreme Court had said it was the committee’s duty to select prisoners to be released 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.

Later on April 13, the top court had clarified saying, “We make it clear that we have not directed states/union territories to compulsorily release the prisoners from their respective prisons.” It said the purpose of the order was to ensure that states/Union Territories assess the situation in their prisons with regard to the outbreak of the pandemic and release certain prisoners. For this purpose, the committee needed to determine the category of prisoners to be released.