As COVID-19 Hits Mumbai Jails, Decongesting is the Only Way Ahead

How do you practise social distancing in an overcrowded jail? Here’s a look at how COVID-19 imacted Mumbai’s jails 

3 min read
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At least half of Maharashtra’s prisoners are being granted temporary parole to help stem the spread of COVID-19. This, however, doesn't include inmates who are accused or convicted in UAPA, MCOCA, PMLA or other stringent acts.

As COVID-19 cases in Mumbai soar past the 15,000-mark, rapid spread of infection in the city’s jails has been one of the biggest concerns of the Maharashtra government. On Tuesday, 12 May, Home Minister Anil Deshmukh announced that the Maharashtra government has decided to grant temporary parole to 17,000 inmates lodged in different jails.

“The Maharashtra government has decided to grant parole to 5,000 undertrial inmates, 3,000 inmates who have been imprisoned up to 7 years and 9,000 inmates who have been imprisoned over 7 years. Out of 35,000 inmates, 17,000 inmates will be granted temporary parole.”
Anil Deshmukh, Maharashtra Home Minister 

Reacting to the state government’s move, former Director General of prisons in Maharashtra, Meeran Chadha Borwankar said the step would definitely help.

“This will definitely help by reducing overcrowding of prisons. It will improve sanitation and hygiene too. It is a welcome step.”
Meeran Chadha Borwankar, former DGP (prisons), Maharashtra  

185 Inmates in Arthur Road Jail Infected

The state government’s announcement comes after around 185 inmates in Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail tested positive for COVID-19 in May. Located opposite Kasturba hospital, the Arthur Road jail has a capacity of 804 inmates. However, when the first case was detected inside the jail in the first week of May, there were 3,700 inmates lodged in it. This massive overcrowding appears to have contributed to the spread of infection in one barrack of the jail.

The first case from the jail emerged when an inmate was taken to a hospital by two police officials due to a medical emergency. Eventually, all three tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the authorities to test other inmates of the jail. To control the infection from spreading further, many inmates were shifted to Taloja jail, some were granted interim bail and those infected were shifted to quarantine facilities.

“Arthur Road being terribly overcrowded was to an extent easy target of COVID. Asymptomatic staff and new prison inmates could have brought the infection in.” 
Meeran Chadha Borwankar, former DGP (prisons), Maharashtra  

On 9 May, a 54-year-old inmate from the Byculla women’s jail also tested positive for COVID-19. While the jail’s capacity is approximately 260 inmates, at least 380 inmates were lodged in it until recently.


The Way Forward

With COVID-19 here to stay in the foreseeable future, decongesting jails could be the only way to ensure the safety of inmates and jail staff. Anticipating the crisis, in April, the Supreme Court had directed states to decongest jails in order to avoid the spread of the infection among prisoners.

So, what are the measures that need to be taken in the long run to avoid infection in jails?

“Police should arrest only very violent and dangerous criminals with above 7 years of punishment. Rest should be bailed out by courts. Reducing overcrowding, better hygiene in prisons and filling up vacancies of doctors will help. Strengthen E-courts/virtual hearings so that inmates don’t go out and get infected. Tele medicine will also help.” 
Meeran Chadha Borwankar, former DGP (prisons), Maharashtra  

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