The Supreme Court on 16 March, took suo moto cognizance of overcrowding of prisons across the country, stating that it is difficult for jail inmates to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
The bench headed by Chief Justice of India, Sharad Arvind Bobde, issued notice to Directorate General of Prison and Chief Secretary of all states and Union Territories, seeking their response by 20 March on the measures taken to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.
“If there is an outbreak in jail, it will affect a very large number of people and it may become a center for spreading to others also. Can we take this as an opportunity to improve jail capacity and prevent overcrowding,” the CJI asked. Noting that there is a high risk of transmission of COVID-19 virus to the prison inmates, the order stated that ‘our prisons can become fertile breeding grounds for incubation of COVID-19’.
“The Director-General of Prisons, Kerala, has set up isolation cells within prisons across Kerala. Those suffering from COVID-19 symptoms such as cold and fever are being moved to these isolation cells. All the new inmates who will be admitted to the prisons in Kerala will be isolated in the isolation cells in the admissions block for six days before permitting their entry into the regular prison cells,” the Supreme Court order said.
Similarly, the apex court noted that an isolation ward has been set up in Delhi’s Tihar Jail and all the 17,500 inmates were checked for COVID-19 and that none of them displayed any symptoms relating to the pandemic disease. It also stated that the Tihar Jail authorities have also decided to screen the new inmates and put them in different wards for three days.
As per sources, there are 1,339 prisons with approximately 4,66,084 inmates and the National Crime Records Bureau shows 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. “We need to formulate some guidelines and directions should be issued concerning the overcrowding of prisons in wake of coronavirus,” observed the Supreme Court.