08/05/2020 8:05 PM IST

Coronavirus Cases In Arthur Road Jail: Why Decongesting Is Slow In Maharashtra

The Maharashtra government had decided in March that 11,000 prisoners would be released, but only around 5,000 inmates have been let out so far.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Arthur Road Jail.

Maharashtra, the state with the highest number of Covid-19 cases in India, has a new worry on its hands.

As many as 77 inmates and 26 staff members from Arthur Road jail in Mumbai have tested positive for the highly infectious disease, Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said on Thursday.

In a video message posted on Twitter, Deshmukh said that after a case was found in one of the barracks of the jail, inmates and police officials on duty were immediately tested.

“77 inmates and 26 police officials tested positive. The process to shift all of them to St George Hospital has already begun,” he added.

Deshmukh also said that there are about 2,800 inmates in the Arthur Road jail, but The Indian Express pointed out that the capacity of the jail is about 800. 

Activists have raised concerns that India’s overcrowded, unhygienic prisons can become an epicentre for the pandemic. The World Health Organisation has warned that prisons across the world can expect “huge mortality rates” from COVID-19 unless they take immediate action. 

Even before the Supreme Court order in March about decongesting prisons, the Arthur Road jail administration had written to a local court about the matter. Arthur Road Jail superintendent NB Vaychal, according to The Times of India, had sought orders to let under-trial inmates held for minor and moderate crimes to be released on regular bail and others accused of major crimes to be released on temporary bail. 

The Maharashtra government had decided in March that 11,000 prisoners, whose term of imprisonment is less than seven years, would be released on parole. But the prisons department of Maharashtra had only released a little over 5,000 inmates till 2 May, an official was quoted as saying by PTI. Out of the 5,105 inmates, 582 were released from Arthur Road jail. 

Mumbai Mirror said that the guidelines by the high-powered committee constituted by Maharashtra ruled out relief for those facing charges or convicted under Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, the Maharashtra Protection of Interest of Depositors Act, the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, even if they fulfil the seven-year term criteria. 

Advocate Ajay Verma, convener of the National Forum for Prison Reforms, told HuffPost India that the high-powered committee set up by the Maharashtra government did not take the Supreme Court directive in the true spirit. He said that Maharashtra’s scope of parameters to determine who should be released is very narrow as compared to Delhi, which has also released convicts on “special remission”. 

Those sentenced to 10 years or more and left with six months of sentence were considered for the remission. Those sentenced to seven years and left with five months of sentence were also considered for release, The Economic Times reported. Delhi also relaxed its criteria for emergency bail last month. 

Senior Advocate Satish Talekar told Mumbai Mirror that the restriction in Maharashtra is not applicable in a majority of other states, which allows them to decongest their prisons faster. 

Deshmukh said that after the coronavirus outbreak, the state government had isolated eight prisons in the state including the Arthur Road jail, and ordered that no new inmate will be allowed to enter. The government had also ordered that those inside, including jail staff, will not be allowed to leave prison during lockdown.

Despite the precautions, the minister said 72 inmates were found to have contracted coronavirus after coming in contact with a cook who had caught the infection, according to PTI.

Despite the lockdown in the jail, members of allied staff have been moving in and out of the prison, The Wire reported. “Essential services like milk, vegetables and groceries come in every day. We also have sanitation workers visiting the prison on a regular basis,” a member of the jail authority was quoted as saying in the report. The person also said that even though the staff has not left the compound in over a month, it is difficult to keep the space completely locked.

(With PTI inputs)