As many as 45 non-government organisations and 187 professionals from healthcare and allied sectors on Monday wrote to the chief justice of India, the chief justices of all High Courts and other legal authorities, urging them to take steps to safeguard the interests of prisoners amid the coronavirus pandemic.

They demanded that authorities modify the criteria used for granting bail or parole to prisoners in order to decongest jails during the pandemic.

The signatories welcomed the Supreme Court order in March 2020 that directed states and Union Territories to consider releasing prisoners or undertrials on parole or interim bail if they are accused of offences entailing up to seven years in prison. The court had also asked states and Union Territories to set up high-level committees for this purpose.

Monday’s letter noted that these committees decide on granting relief to the prisoners on the based on the nature of their offence and the number of years of imprisonment. They do not take into account the prisoner’s age, health status or comorbidities related to Covid-19, the signatories said.

More than 61,000 prisoners were released during the first wave of the coronavirus to decongest jails, but that only reduced the occupancy in jails by 15.4%, the signatories said.

“Additionally, this was inadequate to address overcrowding of 40% of the Indian prisons, including 134 prisons having overcrowding from 100% to 636%,” the letter stated. Nearly, 90% of the prisoners who were released have returned to their respective jails by February or March and the second wave could cause “additional complexities”, the letter added.

The signatories urged the legal authorities to modify the criteria to release prisoners to include priorities based on age, health status and comorbidities. They also demanded that all prisoners must be vaccinated.

Reforms sought by the signatories:

The signatories urged the authorities to prioritize the following actions urgently, to safeguard health of prisoners:

  1. Treat all prisoners on par for release, irrespective of charges/offense and modify the categories of prisoners to be considered for release, giving priority to age, vulnerability and health status of the prisoners, especially the under-trial prisoners (UTPs).
  2. Include medical and other public health professionals, health department officials and relevant civil society organisations in the HPCs to facilitate and monitor the release of prison inmates.
  3. Alternative forms of custody such as house arrest, open prisons, be considered.
  4. Ensure that all health facilities, for testing, treatment and medical care are available, by linking up with local hospitals from public and private sectors, for safeguarding health of those who are not released, to ensure their access to timely and dignified health care.
  5. Take this opportunity to ensure speedy trials, granting of bail and releasing those who have been granted bail.
  6. Offer vaccination to all prisoners in a safe and non-coercive manner.
  7. Prioritize improvement of prison conditions and implement long overdue prison reforms for improving the living conditions and health facilities in prisons, such as increasing budget for prison health, appointment of requisite medical staff.