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Decongestion of prisons inadequate, release 'doesn't take into account' age, health

By Our Representative 

As many as 45 organizations and 187 professionals in health and allied sectors and concerned citizens from India and abroad have issued an appeal to urgently revise criteria for release of prisoners on bail or parole to decongest prisons during the Covid-19 pandemic by giving priority to health status and age related vulnerabilities of the prisoners.
The appeal, sent to the chief justices of all Indian States and Union Territories (UTs), National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), State Legal Services Authorities (SLSA), State Prison Authorities and High Powered Committees (HPCs), cites the Supreme Court of India (SC) order dated March 23, 2020, to say that overcrowding in Indian prisons is a long-standing issue with under trial prisoners constituting nearly 70 percent of the inmates.
The appeal, even as welcoming the Supreme Court order and the HPCs for decongestion of prisons during the pandemic, said, the measures taken so far have been inadequate from a public health and human rights perspective and also uneven across Sates and UTs.
Citing Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) reports, the appeal said, during the first wave, over 61,100 prisoners were released, which achieved only about 15.4% overall reduction in occupancy rate. It added, this was inadequate to address overcrowding of 40% of the Indian prisons, including 134 prisons having overcrowding from 100% to 636%.
Currently, the appeal said, additional complexities have stemmed from the ravaging second wave of the pandemic. Almost 90% of the prisoners who were released last year had returned to prisons in February and March, 2021, as per the SC order.
It regretted, the criteria employed for release on bail or parole by HPCs are based upon nature of offence and years of imprisonment; they do not take into account the age, health status and associated vulnerabilities of prison in-mates to covid 19, and being differently abled.
Pointing out that these vulnerabilities need to be central to determine the release of prison inmates, both because it is being done in response to the ravaging pandemic, the appeal said, the government is duty bound to uphold the rights of prisoners in alignment with Article 21 of the Constitution of India and other relevant international obligations, such as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The appeal pointed out, only five state HPCs considered cases of elderly prisoners for release; only three included in the above criteria occurrence of comorbidities, chronic diseases and certain preexisting conditions like chronic diabetes, HIV, heart condition, cancer, hepatitis B or C, tuberculosis, adding, only Punjab HPC specifically mentioned pregnant women as the category for release.
The appeal recalled, chiefs of the UN agencies (May 13, 2020) in a signed statement appealed for the release of nonviolent detainees as well as those at high-risk, such as the elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions by highlighting the heightened vulnerability to Covid-19 of prison inmates and others in confinement.
They urged policymakers to “…consider limiting the deprivation of liberty to a measure of last resort, particularly in the case of overcrowding”, which undermines hygiene, health, safety and human dignity, causing an “insurmountable obstacle for preventing, preparing for or responding to Covid‐19”, the appeal said.
The government is duty bound to uphold the rights of prisoners in alignment with Article 21 of the Constitution and relevant international obligations
The appeal further said, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that “efforts to control Covid-19 in the community are likely to fail if strong infection prevention and control measures, testing, treatment and care are not carried out in prisons and other places of detention as well”, even as quoting the World Medical Association Declaration of Edinburgh on Prison Conditions and Spread of Tuberculosis and other Communicable Diseases as saying:
“Prisoners enjoy the same healthcare rights as all other people. This includes the right to humane treatment and appropriate medical care. The most efficient way of reducing disease transmission is to improve the prison environment by putting together an efficient medical service that is capable of detecting and treating the disease, and by targeting prison overcrowding as the most urgent action”.
The signatories urged the authorities to treat all prisoners on par for release, irrespective of charges/offense and modify the categories of prisoners to be considered for release, giving priority to age, vulnerability and health status of the prisoners, especially the under-trial prisoners.
It wanted inclusion of medical and other public health professionals, health department officials and relevant civil society organisations in the HPCs to facilitate and monitor the release of prison inmates, adding, alternative forms of custody such as house arrest, open prisons should be considered.
Seeking to ensure that all health facilities, for testing, treatment and medical care should be made available by linking up with local hospitals from public and private sectors for safeguarding health of those who are not released, the appeal said, this should be an opportunity to ensure speedy trials, granting of bail and releasing those who have been granted bail.

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