An appeal has been sent to a High Court judge-led committee for the immediate decongestion of all prisons in Delhi and therefore release of prisoners through interim bail or parole to protect their right to life and health.

The representation was made to Delhi High Court Justice Vipin Sanghi. The panel was formed in 2020 under the Supreme Court’s orders for unclogging the jails to curb the spread of Covid-19.

The representation relies upon advisories of the National Human Rights Commission of India, it said. Advocates Vrinda Grover and Soutik Banerjee, Professor Pratiksha Baxi and public health activist Sarojini N wrote the appeal.

In February, after the Covid-19 situation in Delhi had improved, the High Powered Committee had said there was no reason for recommending an extension of interim bail of undertrials, who were released during the pandemic to ease the pressure on the prisons.

“The present surge in Covid-19 cases across India and particularly in Delhi calls for urgent and decisive intervention of the HPC to ensure that prison inmates in Tihar, Mandoli and Rohini jails are not left helpless and reeling against the deadly strains of the virus,” the statement said. “Medical and expert opinions and instances suggest that the present wave of Covid-19 in India is even more virulent and fatal.”

The appeal also noted reports on several deaths due to Covid-19 in Tihar. More than 250 prisoners had contracted the infection, and prison officials have sought a release of those inmates, it added.

The representation also cited data on congestion and overcrowding in Delhi’s prisons and highlighted a report that said there were over 20,000 prisoners in the Capital’s jails.

“As per information available on the prison department’s website, updated on 20.02.2021, there are a total of 17,285 prisoners in Delhi against a sanctioned capacity of 10,026 inmates,” the appeal said. “The need for adequate social distancing in prisons would necessitate at least a reduction in the occupancy to 50% of the sanctioned capacity – which would place the number of inmates that can be held by following distancing norms at around 5,000, as opposed to the present strength of 20,000 prisoners.”

On May 13, 2020, the World Health Organization and other international bodies had released a statement bringing attention to the heightened vulnerability of prisoners amid the Covid-19 crisis.

“We urge political leaders to consider limiting the deprivation of liberty, including pretrial detention, to a measure of last resort, particularly in the case of overcrowding, and to enhance efforts to resort to non-custodial measures,” the statement read.

The appeal noted the National Human Rights Commission’s advisories related to prisoners amid the Covid-19 crisis.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has also amplified the crisis of the prison system and poses specific challenges to women in prisons,” the appeal said. “Women do not have equal access to gender sensitive health systems, nor do they have access to adequate nutrition and protection from abuse within the prison leading to heightened possibilities of sexual violence.”

The appeal also took note of the advisories of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, and highlighted that non-discrimination was a mandate of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, which is in effect in the country.

On Monday, the Allahabad High Court ordered the release of a section of convicts, undertrials and those in jail for failing to pay fines in order to unclog prisons in Uttar Pradesh amid the surge of coronavirus cases. Judicial officers have been directed to release them on a parole or on final bail. The court also extended the relief period of prisoners who are already on parole by another 60 days.

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Coronavirus: Allahabad HC orders release of prisoners to unclog jails in Uttar Pradesh