As the number of deaths due to coronavirus pandemic keep rising in Maharashtra, prison authorities of various jails in the state are pulling up their socks to make sure enough measures are taken to keep the inmates away from the deadly virus. From screening new inmates, making available protective gear, and conducting daily medical examinations to putting up advisory posters, encouraging the inmates to maintain personal hygiene, jails across Maharashtra are taking suitable steps to fight COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have made sure to not accept any accused or inmate at least as of now. It has been totally stopped," said Dhaberao, deputy jailer at Mumbai's Arthur Road jail which is situated barely 100metres away from the Kasturba Gandhi Hospital for Infectious Diseases which is the present isolation and treatment centre for COVID-19 patients in Mumbai. "All those who come to us are being directed to the Taloja jail at the moment to prevent overcrowding," said Dhaberao.
As of now, there has not been a single positive case in any of the prisons across the state. At the Yerawada Jail in Pune, every new prisoner first goes in a new barrack where he stays put for three days and from there to the second barrack where he is asked to stay for another 10-11 days. Twenty separate cells are allocated for inmates showing COVID-19 related symptoms, for the purposes of quarantine.
"We have basic screenings at the gate which includes a thermal scan and medical check-up. Once the prisoner is clear from there he then undergoes sanitisation inside with sodium hypochlorite," said Dnyaneshwar Kharat, additional senior jailer, Yerawada Jail, Pune. The spaces allocated for the purpose of quarantine are huge—the first barrack can accommodate 60 prisoners, while the second barrack has a capacity to accomodate120 inmates. "At present, we have ten inmates who are quarantined in the second barrack because they are showing symptoms of the virus. However, nobody has been tested positive here till date," said Kharat.
The prisons across the state are overcrowded. For instance, at the Arthur Road Jail in Mumbai, which is famous for having hosted some of the most high profile criminals, including Sanjay Dutt, there are 3,179 inmates at present while the capacity of the facility is no more than 805. Likewise, Yerawda Jail, which has a capacity of 2,300 inmates, presently houses over 5,000 male prisoners.
The prison department of Maharashtra has written to the court seeking hearings through video-conferencing of undertrials and convicts to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Chandrakiran Payade, jailer at Aurangabad Jail said two doctors, two pharmacists and four nurses are stationed inside the jail premises at all times. "Every new inmate is tested, and we also have regular morning monitoring of their health. Right now, we have four new admissions, each of who is under observation at a separate cell until the doctor is sure that they can be sent to the regular cells with the other inmates." The superintendent of Arthur Road Jail N.B. Vaychal had written to local court on March 16, seeking orders to let undertrial inmates held for minor and moderate crimes to be released on regular bail and others accused of major crimes on temporary bail. A week later on March 23, he wrote a letter to the chief metropolitan magistrate in Mumbai to release the inmates as a step towards decongesting the overcrowded prison.
Accordingly, all criminal advocates have been provided with the contact numbers of the person who looks after the digital section of the court who in turn provides them with the ID/password to connect to the court via a video conferencing app. "We need not physically go to the court to represent the accused," says Yashpal Purohit, a District Legal Services Authority-appointed advocate. "This started just last week when the COVID-19 scare brought the entire nation to a standstill. As more and more people get to know that they need to attend the court in person for the hearings the more video conferences will take place. The courts are connected to the internet at all times, and the judges are available on the virtual dais at all times, as per their schedules. The accused gets onto the video conference from inside the jail. So at any one time, there are three individuals connected—the judge, the lawyer and the accused/defendant—all virtually.”
"Till now in the last five days after the supreme court directive, we have released around 50 people who were inside the jail for petty crimes or for whom the severity of punishment was under seven years," says Purohit.
“Those who are involved in first degree crimes and moderate level crimes, where the punishment does not exceed seven years, are being released from jails to avoid overcrowding. Judges are considering those undertrials accused of petty crimes and who cannot engage a lawyer, and are suo moto making a bail application for them," explains Purohit. "We have to get 550 inmates out by the end of this week before March 28 so that the jails can be de-congested," he adds.