Many states have since last year been just transferring prisoners from one prison to another instead of “making any credible” efforts to decongest jails despite the Covid-19 pandemic, a Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) report has said.
The report was released days after the Supreme Court on May 8 cited “housing of inmates beyond optimal capacity” in prisons and again ordered decongestion of jails with immediate release of prisoners granted bail or on parole.
It said the impact of the decongestion efforts on prison occupancies did indicate an average fall in the number of inmates. But it added the inmates in many states actually increased between April 1, 2020, and June 30, 2020, when the Supreme Court constituted panels in states and Union territories to reduce overcrowding in prisons.
CHRI said the number of jail inmates in Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands rose by 10.42% during this period.
“In Bihar, the prison department transferred 14,903 prisoners which amounted to more than 35% of their prison population, to ease overcrowding in select prisons. However, at the end of June, 25 prisons were overcrowded, as opposed to 19 prisons on 1st April. Further, the overall occupancy increased from 86.7% on 1st April to 92% on 30th June 2020,” the report said.
CHRI said the same practice was noticed in Haryana, where the women prisoners from Gurgaon were transferred to another prison in Jhajjar due to insufficient quarantine infrastructure. This too resulted in overcrowding in Jhajjar prison, it added.
The Supreme Court suggested that prisoners, who have been convicted or are undertrials for offences for which the maximum imprisonment is seven years, may be considered for release.
CHRI said there was no correlation found between the number of meetings of the Supreme Court-appointed panels and the release of prisoners. It added a higher number of meetings ensured regular monitoring of prisons and effective measures to curb the spread of the virus.
CHRI said different procedures about consideration of parole applications were followed in states. It cited the vulnerabilities of senior citizens to Covid and said only Mizoram, Punjab, West Bengal, Delhi, and Jammu & Kashmir considered cases of elderly prisoners for release.
“Similarly, barring the three [Mizoram, Punjab, and Delhi], no other HPC [panel] considered undertrials for release who were suffering from co-morbidities and other chronic diseases and pre-existing conditions like chronic diabetes, heart condition, cancer …. Only Punjab HPC specifically mentioned pregnant women as the category for release,” the report said.
CHRI called for ensuring strict implementation of legal provisions that check arbitrary arrests. “The judiciary and other stakeholders must also consider alternatives to imprisonment … to support efforts to reduce overcrowding in prisons.”