IMPACT OF COVID 19 ON PRISONERS
Updated: Sep 9
Author: Kumud Tomar, II Year of B.A.,LL.B.(Hons.) from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar National Law University, Sonepat.
In March 2020, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Till now, this virus has taken the lives of millions of people. In India, approximately 70% of prisoners are under trial and have not been found guilty yet. A 2018 Prison Statistics of India (PSI) report released by the National Crime Records Bureau reports that the capacity of prisons in India is 3,96,223 compared to a population of 445,084 inmates.
Overcrowding, poor ventilation, and a lack of healthcare and sanitation services all contribute to the terrible prison conditions. The conditions of prisoners became increasingly precarious after the pandemic, as social distancing, constant hand washing, and wearing a face mask were the only ways to keep the virus away.
It is nearly impossible to adhere to these preventive measures. Due to overcrowding, social separation is impossible to maintain, as separate rooms and washrooms are not accessible to rigorously adhere to the isolation and quarantine time period's essential standards. The ability to prevent disease transmission is hindered by insufficient testing, sanitization facilities, and a lack of personal protective equipment, including masks.
Impacts on Prisoners
In prison, overcrowding is one of the major problems which gives rise to many other problems. Due to overcrowding, the chances of spreading the infection among the prisoners become very high. To save prisoners from COVID, the Supreme Court passed an order to release prisoners who committed minor crimes. But, this resulted in yet another issue. To combat the virus, the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, prohibiting these people from earning a living. As a result, many have to return to criminal activities such as stealing, commercial sexual activity, and drug use. Criminals that are involved in organised crime may re-join their gangs at any time.
To control the spread of infection in prison, inmates are kept isolated from one another. The visitation facility, Mulakat was discontinued. However, later e-mulakat, video conferencing allowed between prison inmates and their family members, but it was not successful because everybody did not have access to a smart device and a good internet connection.
The measures, which are taken to curb the spread of disease, in turn, give rise to mental issues among inmates.
During the pandemic, everybody's mental health was disturbed as the virus was unknown, no ascertained treatment was available and the healthcare system was also crumbling during these tough times.
The prisoners were also worried about contracting the infection. It is true that they are more prone to contracting diseases than the general population, as the prevalence of diseases like HIV, HBV, and Tuberculosis is higher among them. All this catastrophic situation affects their mental health heavily. Isolation causes adverse psychological effects on prisoners and problems like anxiety, depression, anger, fear of death, self-harm or suicide increase. Mulakat does not occur in a timely manner, which is a crucial part of a prisoner's post-release rehabilitation and helps to maintain the mental well-being of both convicts and their families.
Rights of Prisoners
The prison system of India follows a reformative and rehabilitative approach. Its main aim is to reform wrongdoers and to decrease the recidivism rate in society. The constitution of India provides some basic rights to every individual, citizen or not, like prison rights under Article 14,19,20,21, and 22. The Judiciary, by various pronouncements, ascertained the prisoner's right to a speedy trial, the right to food and water, the right to healthcare, the right to live with human dignity, etc.
In the case of Charles Sob Raj v. The Superintendent, Central Jail Tihar, the supreme court held that fundamental rights which are provided to the general public are also provided to prisoners, albeit with certain restrictions due to the incarceration of the latter. The court, in particular, ruled that failure to provide adequate medical care to prisoners would violate their fundamental rights, leading to the filing of appeals in court.
The Prisoners Act of 1894, which was the first prisoner’s law in India. Its section 13 defines the duties of medical officers in prison. According to this section, medical officer is obliged to look after sanitation and hygiene. Section 37 provides urgent medical facilities for sick prisoners. It also obligates basic and essential commodities like food, clothing, bedding, etc.
The situation in prison is very pathetic. About 70% of the population in prison is under trial. It is undesirable to see a situation where it is certain that not everybody who is in prison is guilty. Still, they have to face the wrath of their unfortunate destiny. The Indian prison system is based on the rehabilitation and reformation of prisoners. It is the government's duty to provide at least humane conditions for prison inmates. The current situation in prison is more deplorable.
In 2020, the NHRC issued an advisory on Human Rights of Prisoners and Police Personnel during COVID-19. In this advisory, various recommendations are made that all prisoners should be provided with soaps, sanitizers, and face masks and their regular usage must be mandated.
Ensuring essential medical facilities in all prisons, the use of face masks, soap, and sanitizers must be mandated. Ensuring thermal screening of everyone in prison for prompt and early detection of the contagion. Health protocols may recognize the mental illness and make arrangements to deal with its various manifestations, which can be mild or extreme, self-harming or violent, overt or obvious.
It can be dealt with by the availability of recreational opportunities and professional counselling from trained staff, and collaborations with local organizations and institutions.