Supreme Court: A bench of SA Bobe, CJ and LN Rao, J has taken suo moto cognisance of overcrowding and infrastructure of prisons across the country in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and has issued a notice to the Director General, Prison, and chief secretary of all states and union territories seeking their response by March 20 on steps taken for prevention of COVID-19. The court also asked all states and union territories to depute an officer on March 23 who could assist the court in the matter.
The bench also took suo moto cognisance of conditions in remand homes where juveniles in conflict with law are lodged. It observed that some states have taken steps for the pandemic but there are some states which have not taken appropriate measures.
The court also cautioned that mass gathering is a big problem and it can become a centre for the spread of coronavirus. The court also said it will issue reasons on why it has taken suo moto cognisance of the matter.
“there is an imminent need to take steps on an urgent basis to prevent the contagion of COVID-19 virus in our prisons. If prisoners are tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, immediate measures have to be taken for their quarantining and medical treatment.”
Stating that prisons can become fertile breeding grounds for incubation of COVID-19, the Court noticed that it was difficult to maintain social distancing as advised in places like prisons that are overcrowded. It said,
“Like most other viral diseases, the susceptibility of COVID-19 is greater in over-crowded places, mass gatherings, etc. Studies indicate that contagious viruses such as COVID-19 virus proliferate in closed spaces such as prisons. Studies also establish that prison inmates are highly prone to contagious viruses. The rate of ingress and egress in prisons is very high, especially since persons (accused, convicts, detenues etc.) are brought to the prisons on a daily basis. Apart from them, several correctional officers and other prison staff enter the prisons regularly, and so do visitors (kith and kin of prisoners) and lawyers. Therefore, there is a high risk of transmission of COVID-19 virus to the prison inmates.”
The Court also took note of the measures being taken by some States like Kerala and Delhi, where isolation cells have been set up to admit all the new prisoners before moving them to regular prison. Any prisoners suffering from COVID-19 symptoms will also be moved to these cells.
The Court, hence, issued notice in order to deal with the present health crisis arising out of Coronavirus (COVID 19) in the country, and further to suggest immediate measures which should be adopted for the medical assistance to the prisioners in all jails and the juveniles lodged in the Remand Homes and for protection of their health and welfare.
There are 1339 prisons in India, and approximately 4,66,084 inmates inhabit such prisons. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the occupancy rate of Indian prisons is at 117.6%, and in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Sikkim, the occupancy rate is as high as 176.5% and 157.3% respectively.
According to the Union Health Ministry, there are 114 cases in India so far, including two people who died in Delhi and Karnataka and 17 foreigners. Ten patients have been discharged.
[IN RE : CONTAGION OF COVID 19 VIRUS IN PRISONS, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 320, order dated 16.03.2020]