The Covid19 outbreak in the country is fast becoming a public health hazard forcing the government to declare a 21-day nationwide lockdown. This public health concern is alsoan occasion to look at the overcrowded prisons in the country. According to India Justice Report (2019) the national average of occupancy in prisons is 114 percent of its capacity. The average only tells part of the story as the condition varies from state to state. The outbreak of an pandemic such as Covid19 will have disastrous impact in a closed environment such as a prison even in normal conditions. Overcrowding will exacerbate the situation beyond control and that calls for immediate attention of the governments concerned. The India Justice Report also stated that over 67 percent of prisoners in the country belong to the category of under-trial prisoners, meaning people in custody awaiting ‘investigation, inquiry or trial’.
Realising the gravity of the situation the Honourable Supreme Court had directed the state governments to consider granting bail to remand prisoners, accused of committing crimes punishable with a maximum of seven years imprisonment. The apex court also directed the state governments to form a high power committee to handle this matter. The court suggested the committee to examine the possibility of releasing convicted prisoners and other remand prisoners on parole in view of the health hazard. We call upon the Union and State Governments to take the directive of the Honourable Supreme Court in letter and spirit and initiate steps to avoid a humanitarian crisis in the prisons. We would like to draw the attention of all the concerned authorities to the examples seen across the world where prisoners, including political prisoners, have been released in view of the present pandemic.
The prisons across the country are having a large number of political prisoners, undergoing incarceration as under-trials for many years or as convicts. Many of them have served more than five years in prison without any clarity on commencement of trial in these cases. Some of them are already suffering from many ailments.
To mention some cases, in the state of Maharashtra, former Delhi University Professor GN Saibaba, poet Varavara Rao, Prof. Shoma Sen, Sudha Bharadwaj and several others ailing from ailments and old age are in jail. In Tamil Nadu, Padma and Veeramony, also suffering from various illnesses and old age, are in jail. A number of political prisoners in remand who have got bail in a number of cases are still imprisoned waiting for it in some other cases. For example, 65-year old Ibrahim, a chronic diabetic also suffering from cardiac problems, has been in jail in Kerala for more than five years. He is waiting for bail in only one case. Danish, another prisoner in the High Security Prison, Viyyur, Kerala, suffering from acute urinary infections, is still in jail despite gaining bail in all cases.
Many jails in the country are not having proper hospitals, adequate doctors or treatment facilities. The prisoners have no option other than the overstretched public health system outside in case of an emergency. Most often prisoners are not in a position to receive adequate medical care on time due to delays caused by various administrative formalities. The situation of prisoners would be far worse when the dreaded Covid19 outbreak is playing havoc with public health system in the country. The arrangements made in prisons to deal with the seriousness of situation remains unknown.
In the above circumstance we appeal to the Union and State Governments to initiate immediate steps to provide bail or parole to all political prisoners on a priority basis along with other prisoners.
Arundhathi Roy: Author
Prof. Gilbert Achcar: SOAS , University of London
Prof. Jairus Banaji: SOAS, University of London
Prof. Shakuntala Banaji: London School of Economics
Sujato Bhadra: Vice President, Committee for Release of Political Prisoners
Tarun Bharatiya: Documentary Film Maker
Prof. Kamal Mitra Chenoy: SSS, JNU
Bernard D’Mello: Author and editor
S.K. Das: Architect
Vidyadhar Date: Journalist
Rutuja Deshmukh: film theorist, University of Pune
Xavier Dias: Rights Activist
Prof. Hargopal: Hyderabad
Rohini Hensman: Writer and Activist
Harsh Kapoor: Activist
Dr. Alessandra Mezzadri: SOAS, University of London
Prof. Dilip Menon: University of Witwatersrand
Sanchita Mukherjee: CRPP
Adv.V.Reghunath: Civil Liberties, Telangana
Prof: Pritam Singh: University of Oxford
Dr. Subir Sinha: SOAS, University of London
Sukla Sen: Author
Stan Swamy: Activist
Dr. Nalini Taneja: University of Delhi
Prof. Rashmi Varma: University of Warwick
Dr. Benjamin Zachariah: University of Heidelberg
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (EPW Editor)
Meena Kandasamy, Author
K Sachidanandan, Author
K. Murali ( Ajith)
Dr J Devika
Dr T T Sreekumar
Dr KT Ram Mohan
Adv PA Pauran
Adv. S Madhusoodanan
Dr. Biju, Director
Adv: Tushar Nirmal Sarathy