Coronavirus: SC asks states, UTs to consider releasing prisoners to decongest jails

The top court said overcrowding of prisons is a matter of serious concern, particularly in the present context of coronavirus (COVID19).
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The Supreme Court Monday directed all states andUnion Territories to constitute high-level committees to consider releasing onparole or interim bail prisoners and undertrials for offences entailing up to7-year jail term to decongest prisons in the wake of coronavirus pandemic.

The top court said overcrowding of prisons is amatter of serious concern, particularly in the present context of coronavirus(COVID19).

In regard to the provisions of Article 21 of theConstitution of India, it has become imperative to ensure that the spread ofcoronavirus within the prisons is controlled, the court said.

A bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justices L NRao and Surya Kant said the state or UT could consider the release of prisonerswho have been convicted or are undertrial for offences for which prescribedpunishment is up to 7 years or less, with or without fine and the prisoner hasbeen convicted for a lesser number of years than the maximum.

"We direct that each State/Union Territoryshall constitute a High Powered Committee comprising of (i) Chairman of theState Legal Services Committee, (ii) the Principal Secretary (Home/Prison) bywhatever designation is known as, (ii) Director General of Prison(s), todetermine which class of prisoners can be released on parole or an interim bailfor such period as may be thought appropriate," it said.

The top court said it would be open for the HighPowered Committee to determine the category of prisoners who should be releaseddepending upon the nature of offence, the number of years to which he or shehas been sentenced or the severity of the offence with which he/she is chargedwith and is facing trial or any other relevant factor, which the Committee mayconsider appropriate.

It also directed that the Undertrial ReviewCommittee set up by the court in another matter, shall meet every week and takesuch decision in consultation with the concerned authority.

It said that the High Powered Committee shall takeinto account the directions contained its 2014 verdict of Arnesh Kumar versusState of Bihar.

It asked the states and UTs who have not filedtheir responses to do so within three weeks from today and listed the matterafter three weeks.

"Taking into consideration the possibility ofoutside transmission, we direct that the physical presence of all theundertrial prisoners before the Courts must be stopped forthwith and recourseto video conferencing must be taken for all purposes," the bench said,adding that the transfer of prisoners from one prison to another for routinereasons must not be resorted except for decongestion to ensure socialdistancing and medical assistance to an ill prisoner.

It directed that there should not be any delay inshifting sick person to a Nodal Medical Institution in case of any possibilityof infection is seen and prison specific readiness and response plans must bedeveloped in consultation with medical experts.

It said that 'Interim guidance on Scaling-upCOVID-19 Outbreak in Readiness and Response Operations in camps and camp likesettings' — jointly developed by the International Federation of Red Cross andRed Crescent (IFRC), International Organisation for Migration (IOM), United NationsHigh Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and World Health Organisation (WHO),published by Inter-Agency Standing Committee of United Nations on March 17,2020 — may be taken into consideration for similar circumstances.

"A monitoring team must be set up at the statelevel to ensure that the directives issued with regard to prison and remandhomes are being complied with scrupulously," it said.

The top court added that looking into the possiblethreat of transmission and fatal consequences, it is necessary that prisonsmust ensure maximum possible distancing among the prisoners including undertrials.

The top court also noted the steps taken by variousstates and UTs including shifting of over 11,000 prisoners to less congestedprisons in Jharkhand.

"An overview of the responses reflects thatconsiderable measures for protection of health and welfare of the prisoners torestrict the transmission of COVID-19 have been taken by the StateGovernments," the bench said.

It said these measures generally include creationof isolation wards, quarantine of new prisoners including prisoners of foreignnationality for a specific period, preliminary examination of prisoners forCOVID-19, ensuring availability of medical assistance, entry points scanning ofstaff and other service providers, sanitisation and cleanliness exercise ofprison campus and wards, supply of masks etc.

It said that significant measures have been takenby Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura, Jharkhand, Goa,Kerala, Telangana and UTs of Jammu & Kashmir and Chandigarh who haveadvised the prison authorities that visitors may be allowed to interact withprisoners only through video calling or telephonic call.On March 16, the top courthad taken suo motu cognisance of overcrowding of prisons across the country andsaid it is difficult for jail inmates to maintain social distancing to preventthe spread of coronavirus.

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