In a confinement, the fate of the prisoners – analysis
Amid the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19), two important stories have gone unnoticed. The first is that of the Iranian government, which temporarily releases 85,000 prisoners as a result of several virus-related deaths. The second is from India. A bank of two justices of the Supreme Court President SA Bobde and LN Rao issued a notice to the chief executive officer, the prison and the chief secretaries of all states and territories of the Union on March 16, asking them about the precautionary measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus in prisons. Indian jails are now creating isolation rooms for those with Covid-19 symptoms. All 17,500 inmates in Tihar, Delhi have been screened for symptoms and new inmates are being evaluated. Lists are being finalized to release selected inmates on parole or provisional bail. Tihar has drawn up a list of 3,000 inmates, while Uttar Pradesh has 10,000 and Maharashtra has 11,000 inmates on its lists. This process is likely to begin today.
There are 1,339 prisons in the country that house 466,084 inmates; the actual capacity is 396,223. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, many prisons have imposed restrictions on visiting strangers.
Visits to prisons are of three types. The first is the one-on-one physical meeting in which an inmate is allowed to meet his visitor in an open room or on the lawn. They have the freedom to physically touch and speak. For the inmate and the visitor, this is the most satisfactory form of meeting. The second is the meeting through a tangled window, which occurs in a large number of prisons. Large numbers of inmates in one room, talking to visitors in another room, leave no room for privacy. The third is tempered glass that works as a barrier between the inmate and the visitor, with an intercom on both sides. Since prison is a state issue, all states are making their own decision, but most jails have closed all three visits. They are now restricting inmates to phone calls.
The Interior Ministry prepared the Model Prison Manual, 2016, after building a national consensus on the problems of prison reforms and highlighted the need for adequate visits. But visitation is still considered a privilege and not a right and can be reduced or cut entirely if the inmate does not “behave well”.
The other problem is related to the phone system in prisons. Even now, only a few states allow female inmates to use the phone in prisons, which are available to male inmates. Prison administrators say this is because the public call office is located in the male unit and this restricts the entry of women. Inmates already receive fewer visits compared to men, due to the alienation of their families.
So when any of those facilities are removed from the inmates’ daily routine, they are amazed. Those who have interacted with inmates will testify that inmates eagerly await their visits. While it is understandable to impose restrictions on visits, an alternative and uniform channel for communication should be created to reduce anxiety. Additionally, inmates are helping the nation by making masks. But this has also gone unnoticed. While removing the visitation allowance for some time, the system must also remember the contribution of inmates and jail staff in this time of crisis.
Vartika Nanda is a prison reformer.
The opinions expressed are personal.