Author: Manishka Seal
II Year | Amity University, Kolkata
For two years, the coronavirus has affected the whole world. It has affected everyone, by way of health or finances. The worst form of human rights violations occurred behind bars during this pandemic. Prisons became the epicenter of covid-19 as the inmates stayed in one confined space. There is already the deprivation of the right to liberty of the prisoners. The risk of a Covid – 19 infection, in the upcoming wave, will only make their condition worse.
Measures taken to prevent prisoners from being infected:
More than 17,200 prisoners and prison staff had tested positive for Covid and 16 had succumbed to the virus by August 2021. The Government of India took the following measures, to prevent the spread of the virus among the inmates:
Decongestion of prisons:
On 23rd March 2020, the Supreme Court ordered the release of the prisoners on interim bail or furlough for decongestion purposes. However, it failed, owing to a delay in decongestion and limited functioning of courts.
Isolation of new prisoners:
There was a separation of the new inmates and vulnerable prisoners from the others to prevent transmission of the virus. But, they do not execute such separation measures during meals.
The government ordered spaces in prisons demarcated as quarantine wards. In case of the absence of such space, the prison administrators must approach the nearest hospital with quarantine facilities.
Vaccination of prisoners:
34.4% of the inmates are vaccinated with the first dose and 4.6% of them are fully vaccinated. We can see that the immunization process has not been very commendable. The delay caused is due to the unavailability of vaccines.
There are provisions for prisoners to communicate daily, over telephone calls, for 5-7 minutes, free of cost. Video conferencing facilities are also provided. There is permission for only two visitors. Mask, social distancing, and screening are compulsory. There are restrictions on allowing items from visitors, except for packed medicines.
The prisoners are informed about the infection and its effects, so they could follow the restrictions and precautionary measures. This is done through posters, awareness sessions, audio, and videos.
Hygiene and cleanliness:
Inmates are provided soap, cloth masks, and sanitizers free of cost. They encourage frequent hand washing. Prison workers sanitize the wards every alternate day. Officials also constantly observe their health.
Problems faced by the prisoners, which violate their rights:
In Charles Sob Raj v. The Superintendent, Central Jail Tihar, it was held that imprisonment does not deprive a prisoner of his basic, fundamental rights, but it certainly limits them due to the imprisonment of the person. The threat to the prisoners’ rights has augmented with the outbreak of Covid-19. The following problems have violated the prisoners’ basic rights:
Prisons in Delhi are the most overcrowded, followed by Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Between 2019 and 2021, there has been an alarming surge in the prison population, which rose from 2-4% to 23%. In 2019, 69% of the prisoners were undertrials. The prisoners occupied 118.5% of the capacity of the prisons, the highest since 2010. The use of criminal justice machinery increased during the lockdown. Thus, despite decongestion measures, the number of prisoners released equalled the number of new inmates. In such overcrowded prisons, the spread of the virus is quite obvious, considering social distancing is not possible.
UN agencies have revealed that prisoners are more prone to substance addiction, communicable diseases, etc. Hence, owing to lower immunity due to stress, deprivation of the right to liberty, and poor nutrition, they are more exposed to the virus.
Poor living conditions:
Bad living conditions in prisons often lead to violence and sexual abuse. Besides, prisons lack hygiene, leading to the spread of communicable diseases or a high prevalence of diseases.
Insufficient medical facilities:
There were not enough medical professionals to conduct daily screening of inmates. The prison officials did not follow the provisions for sanitization, hygiene, and social distancing set out by the Government.
Ill-treatment of prisoners:
The inspection team visits were suspended. Consequently, the prisoners’ security has remained unsupervised. This has led to malpractice and ill-treatment in the prisons, especially when a prisoner is under isolation, after testing positive for Covid. It is arbitrary, abusive as well as a clear violation of their human rights.
Restriction on visits:
Due to the restriction on family visits, prisoners worry about the security and well-being of their family members. Phone calls and video-conferencing facilities did not yield good results. In Jammu and Kashmir, the prisoners were allowed to make a phone call once in 15 days. Moreover, due to such drawbacks, the lawyers could not visit the prisoners. This is a huge loss to the under-trial prisoners. They have been put behind bars, without even being completely tried and convicted. This also causes a delay in proceedings, which in turn, causes a delay in delivering justice. It will make these inmates lose hope of returning to their normal lives.
Here are some suggestions to alleviate the problems of the prisoners:
- There must be constant efforts to reduce the detrimental effects of isolation as the prisoners are away from their families.
- There must be provisions for regular contact with their families or lawyers.
- Decisions made for the prisoners, concerning Covid protocol, should be transparent, to ensure its legality and proportionality.
- The prison administration should allow Inspection visits, with proper and sufficient precautions, to prevent ill-treatment of the prisoners.
- Isolation of prisoners should be proportional, legal, and must be under the guidance of a medical professional.
- The concerned officials must improve living conditions in prisons urgently.
- There must be provisions for vaccination and periodic check-up of prisoners since prisons have become the epicentre of the virus.
The Covid outbreak has proved to be challenging to people around the world, irrespective of the region they live in, their economic status, or their profession. The lives of people outside and inside prisons are equally in danger in this pandemic. The imprisonment of a prisoner does not take away his basic rights. Basic human rights apply to all, whether innocent or criminal. To conclude, the current state of prisons seems to be an additional punishment, which needs to be reformed.
 Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, https://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/content/stateut-wise-prisons-response-to-covid-19-pandemic-in-india (last visited February 17, 2022).
 Umar Sofi, 34.4% Prisoners got 1st dose of Covid vaccine, 4.6% got both, Hindustan Times, August 6, 2021.
 Charles Sob Raj v. The Suptd., Central Jail Tihar 1978 AIR 1514.
 Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa, Prison Overcrowding in 2019 highest in 10 years, Hindustan Times, September 7, 2020.
 Sukanya Shantha, In India and Around the World, Prisoners Rights Violated During Pandemic: Report, The Wire (February 17, 2021, 11:21 pm), https://thewire.in/rights/prisoners-rights-covid-19-pandemic-amnesty-international.
Editor : Ananya Manjunath