- By Simran Bais
In the last few weeks the world has witnessed the spread of communicable respiratory disease called the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-Cov-2). The outbreak was at the very first instance identified in Wuhan, Hubei, China in the month of December, 2019. Consequently on 11th March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 as a pandemic after realising the fact that the spread of such communicable disease has arose up to thirteen fold in countries other than China.
Some Indian State governments has also declared COVID-19 as an epidemic in order to invoke the emergency provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. Medical experts have noted that there are four stages of the contagion of the COVID-19 virus, which are firstly, entry of persons carrying the COVID-19 virus into Indian territory, thereby, importing the COVID-19 into India, secondly, local spread i.e. spread of the COVID-19 virus from the carrier to his/her kith and kin, thirdly, community spread i.e. spread of the COVID-19 virus to the communities in which a carrier of the COVID-19 virus is resident and finally, the epidemic level.
The Government of India and the respective State Government have also issued several advisories to the citizens, regarding the prevention of the further spread of the COVID-19 virus. One of the suggestions made by the Government of India is to maintain social distancing, which is considered to be the most effective way of stopping the contagion of COVID-19 virus.
While the Government of India advices that social distancing must be maintained to prevent the spread of COVID-19 virus, the bitter truth is that our prisons are overcrowded, making it difficult for the prisoners to maintain social distancing.
There are 1339 prisons in this country, and approximately 4,66,084 inmates inhabit such prisons. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 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.
Like most other viral diseases, the susceptibility of COVID-19 is greater in over-crowded places, mass gatherings, etc. Studies indicate that contagious viruses such as COVID-19 virus proliferate in closed spaces such as prisons. Studies also establish that prison inmates are highly prone to contagious viruses. The rate of ingress and egress in prisons is very high, especially since persons (accused, convicts, detenues etc.) are brought to the prisons on a daily basis. Apart from them, several correctional officers and other prison staff enter the prisons regularly, and so do visitors (kith and kin of prisoners) and lawyers. Therefore, there is a high risk of transmission of COVID-19 virus to the prison inmates. For the reasons mentioned above, our prisons can become fertile breeding grounds for incubation of COVID-19.
It is to be noted that some State Governments and their Departments of Prisons have already taken preventive measures. For instance, the Director General of Prisons, Kerala has set up isolation cells within prisons across-Kerala. Those suffering with 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.
Similarly, an isolation ward has been set up in the Tihar Jail, Delhi and all the 17,500 inmates of the said Jail were checked for COVID-19, and it was found that none displayed any symptoms relating to COVID-19. The authorities of the Tihar Jail have also decided that new inmates will be screened and put in different wards for three days. However, we do not have information about the measures taken by the other State Governments in their prisons to prevent the contagion of COVID-19. For all the above reasons, it is to be considered appropriate to show cause why directions should not be issued for dealing with the present health crisis arising out of Corona virus (COVID 19) in the country, and further to suggest immediate measures which should be adopted for the medical assistance to the prisoners in all jails along with the juveniles lodged in the Remand Homes, for the protection of their health and welfare.