Overcrowded Prisons Amid COVID-19

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    Recently, the Supreme Court ordered the release of prisoners to decongest jails amid the COVID-19 second wave.

    About Overcrowded Prisons

    • Indian prisons have been housing more inmates than their capacity for decades now and this problem of overcrowded prisons is getting worse amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • According to a report on prison statistics for 2019 released by the National Crime Records Bureau
      • As of 31 December 2019, there were 4,78,600 inmates lodged in different prisons in India while they had a collective capacity to house only about 4,03,700 inmates. 
        • This means the number of prisoners was 118.5% of the prison capacity, the highest since 2010.

    Causes & Concerns

    • The inconsistencies in the bail system and the pendency of court cases are some of the key reasons for overcrowding in prisons
    • Contagious viruses such as COVID-19 proliferate in closed spaces such as prisons. prison inmates are highly prone to contagious viruses
      • This is a matter of concern also because nearly every eighth prisoner in India is a person above the age of 50, the age group which is at a higher risk of developing severe complications and dying due to the Covid-19 infection.
    • Maintaining social distancing norms is impossible in an overcrowded prison. 
    • Overcrowding leads to problems of hygiene, management and discipline.
      • The human rights of prisoners are violated due to the rise in the prison population.

    Suggestions

    • Recommendations of Law Commission of India in its 268th report: The Commission recommended that those detained for offences that come with a punishment of up to seven years of imprisonment should be released on completing one-third of that period and for those charged with offences that attract a longer jail term after they complete half of that period.
    • It also recommended that the police should avoid needless arrests, while magistrates should refrain from mechanical remand orders. 
    • Open prisons Concept: The All-India Committee on Jail Reform constituted in 1980 recommended the government to set up and develop open prisons in each state and UT similar to the Sanganer open camp in  Rajasthan 
      • It also recommended that life convicts who offer a good prognosis should be transferred to semi-open & open prisons.

    What is Open Prison?

    • Open prisons have relatively less stringent rules as compared to controlled jails.
    • They go by many names like minimum-security prison, open-air camps or prison without bars.
    • The fundamental rule of an open prison is that the jail has minimum security and functions on the self-discipline of the inmates
    • The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, popularly known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, laid down the objectives of open prisons stating, that such prisons provide no physical security against escape but rely on the self-discipline of the inmates, provide the conditions most favourable to the rehabilitation of carefully selected prisoners.
    • Justice Amitava Roy Committee Recommendations: In 2018 The Supreme Court constituted a three-member committee, to be headed by former apex court judge Amitava Roy, to look into the aspect of jail reforms across the country and make recommendations on several aspects, including overcrowding in prisons.it recommended 
      • Special fast-track courts should be set up to deal exclusively with petty offences which have been pending for more than five years. 
      • Further, accused persons who are charged with petty offences and that granted bail, but who are unable to arrange surety should be released on a Personal Recognizance (PR) Bond.
      • Launching a National Mission for Justice Delivery and Legal Reforms
    • In 1980, a Committee on Jail Reform, under the chairmanship of Justice AN. Mulla was constituted to review the laws, rules and regulations keeping in view the overall objective of protecting society and rehabilitating offenders.
      • Lodging of undertrials in jail should be reduced to the bare minimum and they should be kept separate from the convicted prisoners
        • Since under trials constitute a sizable portion of the prison population, their number can be reduced by speedy trials and liberalization of bail provisions.

    About Prisons’/’persons

    • Prisons’/’persons detained therein’ is a State subject under Entry 4 of List II of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution of India.
    • Administration and management of prisons is the responsibility of respective State Governments. 
    • However, the Ministry of Home Affairs provides regular guidance and advice to States and UTs on various issues concerning prisons and prison inmates.

    Right to Life and Personal Liberty For Prisoners 

    • The Supreme Court in various cases has declared the right to medical care comes under the ambit of Article 21 of the Constitution
    • Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the right of personal liberty and thereby prohibits any inhuman, cruel or degrading treatments to any person whether he is a national or foreigner. 
    • Article 39A of the Constitution of India deals with the obligation of the State to provide free Legal Aid to such accused prisoners both in the prison and outside, as are unable to engage a lawyer due to lack of means to defend themselves in the Court for the criminal charges brought against them.

    Way Forward

    • It is more imperative for authorities to determine the urgent interventions necessary for safeguarding the fundamental right to life of prisoners. 
      • These measures must include decongestion, whether by setting up temporary prisons if feasible or by issuing new criteria for releasing prisoners.
    • Restricting the interaction of inmates with jail staff is crucial — authorities suspect that asymptomatic jail officials may have contributed to the spread of the virus
    • Data on the prevalence of testing, infection and vaccination, as well as the status of medical infrastructure in jails, must be released periodically to allow public monitoring.
    • Prisons in the country must be given appropriate correctional treatment through actual enforcement of various recommendations and suggestions.
    • Maintenance of daily hygiene in prisons should be put at a premium.

    Source: TH