Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of NV Ramana, CJ and L. Nageswara Rao and Surya Kant, JJ has issued directions to contain the spread of coronavirus in the overcrowded prisons of India.

The Court said,

“… the requirement of decongestion is a matter concerning health and right to life of both the prison inmates and the police personnel working. Reduction of impact of Covid-19 requires this Court to effectively calibrate concerns of criminal justice system, health hazards and rights of the accused. From limiting arrests to taking care of Covid-19 Patients, there is a requirement for effective management of pandemic from within the prison walls so as to defeat this deadly virus.”

Anticipating the spread of Covid19 virus in overcrowded prisons, on 23.03.2020, the Court had directed the State Governments, Union Territories to constitute High Powered Committees to determine the class of prisoners who can be released on parole or on interim bail for appropriate periods. The High-Powered Committees were constituted in all the States, except a few.

On the basis of recommendations made by the High-Powered Committees, a large number of prisoners were released either on interim bail or on parole. Due to the reduction of the number of active cases, the released prisoners were directed to report back to prisons. Almost 90% of the prisoners who have been released last year have returned to prisons in February and March, 2021.

However, the unprecedented surge in Covid¬19 during the last few weeks has caused a serious concern about the spread of Covid-19 in overcrowded prisons where there is lack of proper sanitation, hygiene and medical facilities.

The Court, hence, directed that,

  1. There should be strict control and limit on the authorities from arresting accused in contravention of guidelines laid down in Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar, (2014) 8 SCC 273, during pandemic.
  2. The rapid proliferation of the virus amongst the inmates of congested prisons is a matter of serious concern. The High-Powered Committees constituted by the State Governments/Union Territories shall consider release of prisoners by adopting the guidelines followed by them last year, at the earliest. Those States which have not constituted High Powered Committees last year need to do so immediately. Commissioner of Police Delhi shall also be a member of the High-Powered Committee, Delhi.
  3. The High Powered Committee, in addition to considering fresh release, should forthwith release all the inmates who had been released earlier pursuant to our order 23.03.2020, by imposing appropriate conditions. Such an exercise is mandated in order to save valuable time.
  4. Those inmates who were granted parole, pursuant to earlier orders, should be again granted a parole for a period of 90 days in order to tide over the pandemic.
  5. Prison occupancy must be updated on websites by all States as is being done in Delhi and should be adopted as good practice. Moreover, all the decisions of High-Powered Committees need to be published on respective State Legal Service Authorities/State Governments/High Courts websites in order to enable effective dissemination of information.

“The fight against the pandemic is greatly benefitted by transparent administration.”

The Court, however asked the authorities to be considerate of the concerns of the prisoners who might not be willing to be released in view of their social background and the fear of becoming victims of the deadly virus.

Further, the authorities are directed to ensure that proper medical facilities are provided to all prisoners who are imprisoned.

The spread of Covid¬19   virus should be controlled in the prisons by regular testing being done of the prisoners but also the jail staff and immediate treatment should be made available to the inmates and the staff. Further, levels of daily hygiene need to be maintained and sanitation required to be improved.

The Court also directed that appropriate steps shall be taken for transportation of the released inmates of the prisons, if necessary, in view of the curfews and lockdown in some States.

[IN RE : CONTAGION OF COVID 19 VIRUS IN PRISONS, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 376, order dated 07.05.2021]

Appearances before the Court by:

Attorney General KK Venugopal, Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves

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