Covid-19: Ensuring prisons do not become fertile ground for the virus – analysis
The coronavirus disease pandemic (Covid-19) has reached prisons in India. With its high occupancy rates and inadequate healthcare facilities, this is a disaster in the making. Many states are reportedly affected, with 492 infections and two deaths. For example, Delhi has 17 cases of infection, Gujarat 14, Haryana two, Maharashtra 199, MP 19, Odisha one, Punjab one, Rajasthan 125, and UP 10.
Since March, the Supreme Court (SC) and state authorities have taken steps to decongest prisons across the country. The National Legal Services Authority said in a recent report that more than 60,000 prisoners have been released since then. However, with a prison population of over four thousand rupees and new admissions every day, it is not enough to decongest the prisons. It is time to focus on the conditions inside the prisons.
Hygiene and sanitation facilities in custody institutions tend to be poor. The 2016 Model Prison Manual prepared by the Ministry of the Interior recommends one toilet for every ten inmates at night and one for six during the day. (During closing hours, prisoners can leave their barracks to wash, bathe, and get fresh air.) The reality, however, is far from this. Lack of sufficient toilets, a supply of soap and water for bathing and washing are some of the reasons for the general lack of hygiene in our prisons. These gaps, coupled with poor healthcare facilities, make prisons fertile ground for the virus.
While facilities are inadequate, the lack of institutional staff despite available positions means that effective implementation of anti-virus precautions in prisons is very difficult. The 2019 India Justice Report, which analyzed government data across four pillars of the criminal justice system (police, prisons, legal aid and the judiciary), indicated vacancies of between 30 and 40% in staff institutional. As Covid-19 positive cases increase in prisons, state governments must urgently appoint additional staff, especially care and medical, on a contractual basis.
Officials within the justice system rarely receive training in handling disaster and emergency situations, making prisons even more vulnerable. This requires the deployment of appropriately trained civil defense teams. These teams can effectively assist prison administrators in implementing prescribed sanitation plans as advised by health departments and other agencies. In addition, each prison must establish a nodal medical committee to monitor the prison’s response to positive and suspected Covid-19 cases among prisoners and staff, and to track contacts.
It is equally important that the fundamental rights of prisoners are protected, such as adequate medical care, a clean and hygienic environment, an adequate diet, clean bedding and clothing, communication with family and friends, and effective legal representation.
We suggest the following steps to combat the spread of the pandemic within prisons. First, prisons must guarantee weekly visits by doctors. Two, all rooms, barracks and common areas must be cleaned daily with water and disinfectant. Three, thermal thermometers must be provided to monitor visitors and staff, and toilets and hand washing facilities must be located at entry and exit points. Four, additional mobile toilets must be installed (if necessary), as well as potable water and bathroom facilities augmented by tank trucks. Five, inmates must be provided with a sufficient supply of bath and wash soaps, as well as sanitary napkins. Six, an improved diet should be provided to pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children in prisons. Seven, a supply of cloth or gamcha masks and disinfectants for prison staff should be ensured. Eight, new admissions to the prison must be reviewed and kept in an isolation room for 14 days.
In an attempt to verify that infections spread inadvertently during prison visits, several states have banned visits from family members and legal representatives. However, some have made alternative arrangements for communication, providing phone or video call services. The home affairs ministry, in its May 2, 2020 notice, also emphasized that “the installation of mulaqats, that is, the meeting between prisoners and their families, should stop until the pandemic is brought under control. Videoconferencing and phone calls between prisoners and their family members should be allowed. “
It is natural for prisoners to be anxious for the well-being of their family. Prison administrators must ensure the availability of at least some mode of communication. It is also important to allow phone calls with the prisoners’ attorneys to help them get an idea of the status of your case or bond request.
Prison administrations should take steps to reduce stress levels among prisoners and prison staff. A dedicated helpline facility for electronic counseling services can be established in coordination with the health department. Legal services authorities or non-governmental organizations working in the area may be requested to organize awareness camps or video recreation sessions.
Concerted efforts must be made to mitigate the dangers of the spread of the pandemic among the population in custody. Governments must affirm their commitment to safeguard the rights of prisoners and prison staff, and take affirmative measures to guarantee their safety and well-being.
Vijay Raghavan is a professor at the Center for Criminology and Justice, School of Social Work, TISS, and project manager, Prayas. Madhurima Dhanuka is Program Chief, Prison Reform Program, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
The opinions expressed are personal.