PRISONERS’ DILEMMA AMIDST THE PANDEMIC


Meghaa G

Tamil Nadu National Law University





Introduction

Prisons in India, with shared facilities and close-contact sheltering, have been reservoirs of infectious diseases. The lack of proactiveness and sluggish judicial machinery has placed prisons in a disadvantageous position amidst rapidly spreading coronavirus. Hence, it is imperative to legally analyze issues of public health and human rights in prisons to formulate viable solutions.

Existing Legal Provisions

The Prison Act, 1894[1] provides basic guidelines for prisons including provisions of sanitary facilities and safe accommodations, etc. Likewise, The Model Prison Manual, 2016[2] elaborates procedures for prison administration during epidemics such as segregating infected patients, disinfecting clothing, mental health establishments, etc.

Various judgements have also recognised prisoners’ rights such as Paschim Bangal Khet Mazdoor Samity v. State of West Bengal[3] and Charles Sobhraj v. The Superintendent, Central Jail, Tehar, New Delhi[4] which held that Right to Healthcare is a fundamental right of prisoners under Article 21, specifying that imprisonment does not bid farewell to fundamental rights.

There also exist international conventions ratified by India regarding prison administration and human rights such as UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners[5] and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights[6], which elucidate on minimum quality standards of food, sanitation, etc.

Current Situation and Measures Taken

India (2018) already had an average prison-occupancy of 117%[7], revealing a significant overcrowding predicament. Consequentially, this violates numerous legal provisions regarding minimum standards of medical and food facilities as well as prisoners’ inherent right to life since the inevitable shortage of the resources will create a deplorable living.

Alongside, prisons have only employed 1,914 medical staff against the maximum sanction of 3,220[8]. Hence, with the Tihar Jail alone having 10% of its occupants as HIV-positive[9], health-compromised prisoners become more susceptible to the virus both mentally and physically due to the lack of medical facilities.

The responses of the States in issuing paroles and intermediary bail for minor offenses, Jails instituting their own quarantine wards, banning prison visits, etc. to handle the dilemma is appreciated. However, these reforms are unfortunately insufficient.

Recommendations

Alongside recommendations of increasing testing, isolating medically fragile prisoners, and increasing access to protective equipment, it is also pertinent to consider A.N Mulla’s Report on Prison Reforms[10]. Their suggestion of instituting quicker bail procedures for undertrials can greatly tackle overcrowding since 69% of prisoners are undertrial[11]. Additionally, the Right to Bail is inherently a fundamental right under personal liberty. Hence, with the necessity for social distancing and the problem of overcrowding, upholding this right can effectively conserve health standards and human rights during the pandemic.

Further, it is pertinent to suspend beggary laws since the offenders of these apparent crimes have been convicted up to 10 years in jail under unsanitary conditions. The Centre must also elaborate safe methods to transport and house children in conflict with the law since many juveniles are also orphaned.

In conclusion, prisons must become a public health priority amidst the pandemic to effectively balance public health and human rights.



[1] The Prisons Act, 1894 (Act 9 of 1894).

[2] The Model Prison Manual, 2016.

[3] 1996 SCC (4) 37.

[4] 1978 AIR 1514.

[5] ECOSOC Res 663 C (XXIV) (31 July 1957).

[6] Human Rights Committee, ‘International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’ (2002) UN Doc CCPR/CO/75/MDA.

[7] Ministry of Home Affairs, National Crime Records Bureau, ‘Prison Statistics India 2018’ (2018) <https://ncrb.gov.in/sites/default/files/PSI-2018.pdf> accessed June 27, 2020.

[8] Ministry of Home Affairs, National Crime Records Bureau, ‘Prison Statistics India 2018’ (2018) <https://ncrb.gov.in/sites/default/files/PSI-2018.pdf> accessed June 27, 2020.

[9] Jai Dehadrai, ‘In the Time of Coronavirus: The Right to Bail is Part of an Undertrial's Right to Life’ (The Wire, Mar 26, 2020) <https://thewire.in/law/in-the-time-of-coronavirus-the-right-to- bail-is-part-of-an-undertrials-right-to-life> accessed June 27, 2020.

[10] Ministry of Home Affairs, A N Mulla Committee, ‘Report of the All India Committee on Jail Reforms’ (1980).

[11] Ministry of Home Affairs, National Crime Records Bureau, ‘Prison Statistics India 2018’ (2018) <https://ncrb.gov.in/sites/default/files/PSI-2018.pdf> accessed June 27, 2020.

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