Bombay High Court: The Division Bench of Dipankar Datta, CJ., and G. S. Kulkarni, J. had addressed a suo motu case on the issue of alarming rise in COVID-19 cases in prisons of the State of Maharashtra.
By an earlier order, the Bench had passed several directions to de-congest the correctional homes and to compel adherence to maintenance of COVID-19 protocol in such homes to ensure safety and well-being of the correctional home inmates as well as the staff.
Pursuant to the said order, a report had been submitted by the State asserting that sanitizers had been made available as well as appropriate briefing is given to the authorities for maintaining COVID-19 protocol inside the correctional homes. Additionally, only those staff, who are vaccinated, are being assigned duties and to interact with the inmates. The State had assured that urgent steps would be taken to ensure that the entire prison staff is vaccinated at the earliest.
Another major issue before the Court was, the particulars of medical officers as well as paramedical staff posted in the various central prisons and district prisons present a very dismal picture. In case of both medical officers and para-medical staff, nearly 1/3rd of the vacancies remain unfilled. That though Medical Officers belonging to Classes I, II and III are shown to have been posted at various correctional homes but the principle behind such posting had not been indicated in the brief note submitted by the state. Similarly, the Yerwada Central Prison was found not to have the service of a single Medical Officer Class I. The Bench asked the state how it proposes to deal with the problem of dearth of medical officers and para-medical staff at the various correctional homes. The state was directed to at least make efforts to fill up all the sanctioned posts and ensure zero vacancy qua such posts. The Bench said any omission or failure to deal with the concern at hand by the State in the near future may not be viewed lightly.
While noting the progress made in achieving compliance, the Bench further issued further directions:
- The authorities to whom the guidelines/ recommendations are issued by the High Power Committee in furtherance of the avowed object of reducing the problem of overcrowding in the correctional homes shall follow the same in letter and spirit.
- The second direction was with regard to devising ways and means to regulate the entry of staff in the correctional homes, since it was apprehended that such staff were the carriers of the virus and contributed to its spread among the inmates.
- It is revealed that pulse oximeter reading, temperature reading as well as tests for symptoms common to the infection in issue are required to be undergone by each staff. Such staff also has to wear appropriate masks, properly.
- The shall, as far as practicable, have all the prison staff vaccinated as early as possible.
- State shall not compel an inmate to obtain release either on interim bail or emergency parole, without his free will/volition.
- Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India has issued Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on COVID-19 ~ Vaccination of Persons without Prescribed Identity Cards through CoWIN portal which stipulates that if a group of people is found not to have any of the 7 specified identity cards required for vaccination, such group of people may be registered on the CoWIN portal and further steps accordance with the SOP for vaccination. Accordingly, directions were issued to the State as well as the prison authorities not to insist on production of Aadhar Cards by correctional home inmates and to proceed for vaccination of those inmates, not having the specified identity cards, in the manner as laid down in the SOP without any delay.
- To ensure that the statutory mandate of the Maharashtra Prison (Prison Hospital) Rules, 2015 framed under the provisions of the Prison Act, 1894 are complied with as early as possible; also, if there be dearth of medical officers, a policy of rotation could be formulated and pressed into service.
- Noticing the news report regarding water shortage in Taloja correctional home, the Bench directed the authorities to take immediate steps to restore the water supply.
Lastly, observing the rising number of Covid positive inmates and jail staff, the Bench opined that much is required at the end of the prison authorities to arrest the spread of the pandemic in the correctional homes. Hence, the Court asked the state to take appropriate steps within the limits of its capacity.
[Suo Motu v. State of Maharashtra, 2021 SCC OnLine Bom 715, order dated 12-05-2021]
Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together
Appearance before the Court by:
Counsel for the State: Deepak Thakare and Akshay Shinde
Counsel for People’s Union for Civil Liberties (Intervenor): Mihir Desai with Vijay Hiremath, Devyani Kulkarni and Mihir Joshi
For Centre for Criminology and Justice (TISS): Professor Vijay Raghavan