India also has an obligation towards rights of the prisoners as per the international laws and convention. In the 75th Session, 2038th meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Committee concluding observations were adopted by considering the Report of Maldova, adhered on 18th and 19th July 2002.
Amidst this Pandemic COVID 19, the situation is so catastrophic and chaotic that WHO has declared this undetectable pandemic as public health emergency of International concern.
In the absence of any vaccine or medical treatment the only way to restrict the escalation of this disease is to follow and obey the social distancing norms. But proper implementation of social distancing norms is not plain sailing for any country.
In the light of status quo among all these chaos and complications, one of the section which is worst affected and neglected are the Prisoners.
Condition of Prisoners and Prisons
For Indian prisoners in the absence of proper demographic database of prisoners, slow operation and functioning of judiciary, poor infrastructure and overcrowding in prisons and due to various other reasons this unprecedented pandemic acted as a flawless tempest or ticking bomb. Therefore it’s imperative to scrutinize the rights available to prisoners who are locked inside the prisons.
The problem of overcrowding in prisons is one of the major issues for the prisoners during this pandemic as social distancing seems completely missing in prisons. From the year 2008-2018, Indian prisons had an occupancy rate of 117%, which means there are 17% more prisoners than the capacity of prisons. As per the report of National Crime Record Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs (Prison Statistic 2008) the capacity of prisons to hold the inmates is 3,96,223 while the number prisoners who are locked inside the prisons are 4,66,804 in number which means that there are 70,581 more prisoners than the designated capacity.
The first thing is to consider whether Right to proper healthcare facilities is part of Fundamental rights or not. In the judgement of Paschim Bangal Khet Mazdoor Samity & Others v. State of West Bengal & Others, Supreme Court of India clearly stated that right to proper healthcare facilities is an integral part of right to life which is mentioned in Article 21 of Indian Constitution. Now it is important to scrutinize whether Right to proper healthcare facilities which is an important part of Fundamental Rights is applicable to prisoners in the similar way as it’s applicable on an ordinary citizen.
In the judgement of Charles Sobhraj v. The Superintendent, Central Jail, Tehar, New Delhi, The Supreme Court of India clearly mentioned that all the fundamental rights which are available for an ordinary citizen is available for a prisoner in the same way with slight diminution because the latter is in prison. It was also explicitly mentioned that the prisoners should be provided with proper healthcare facilities and failure to do the same would be considered to be a violation of fundamental rights and involve legal remedy.
Apart from the Judicial Outlook, there are various other legal provisions available for the prisoners which include The Prison Act, 1894 and Model Prison Manual, 2016.
Section 4 of The Prison Act, 1894 includes the provisions for sanitary and hygienic accommodation of prisoners inside the prisons. Section 7 of the act has the provisions for safe and proper custody of all the prisoners who are excess in number and are kept in temporary prisons. This section specifically has provisions to avoid overcrowding in the prisons during the outbreak of any epidemic or during other times as well.
The Model Prison Manual, 2016 scrutinizes the guidelines for governing the administration of prisoners; these guidelines are framed to maintain the conformity in rules and norms for the prisoners throughout the country. The Manual also has a proper framework and guideline for the prisoners during the time of outbreak of any epidemic or infectious disease. It has various provisions like creation of isolated and segregated sheds, treatment of infected barracks and clothes etc. Chapter V includes guidelines for Management of prisons in custody, Chapter VI has provisions for the proper maintenance of all the prisoners, Chapter VII has guidelines for medical and healthcare facilities and many other important rules and guidelines for the proper management of prisoners.
India also has an obligation towards the Rights of the prisoners as per the International laws and Convention. In the 75th Session, 2038th meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Committee concluding observations were adopted by considering the Report of Moldova, adhered on 18th and 19th July, 2002. It specifically mentions that if there is violation of right to proper healthcare facilities during any pandemic and if state fails to take care of their prisoners during the outbreak of some contagious disease then, it would be considered as violation of Right to life mentioned in Article 6 and Right to Liberty mentioned in Article 9 of ICCPR, 1996 (International Convention on Civil and Political Rights). India is one of those countries who have signed as well as ratified the ICCPR. Therefore India has a legal obligation to take preventive measures to stop the spread and escalation of COVID-19 in prisons.
Steps Taken by the Government
The Government of India has also taken measures to protect prisoner’s right amid this pandemic. A suo moto cognizance has been taken by the Supreme Court of India for protecting the rights of prisoners considering the over-crowded condition of prisons. The Supreme Court had directed the government of all the States and Union Territories to grant Parole to the prisoners who charged for minor offences.
Apart from it Segregation cell and Isolation wards are being created at many places inside the prisons, also to avoid overcrowding Interim Bail is also been provided to the undertrials in many states including Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh etc. In many states the government has also put various restrictions on the visitors and relatives who come to meet prisoners.
States like Kerala conducted awareness drives regarding COVID 19, Social Distancing, preventive measures etc. These drives helped prisoners to know about the disease so they can adopt preventive measures against the spread of this disease.
This Deadly pandemic COVID-19 makes us realize the loopholes in the implementation of laws and the catastrophic conditions of not only the prisons but also the prisoners. The problem is not just limited to lack of proper legal framework but also in the proper implementation of existing laws and conventions. Thus there is an urgent need for a better legal framework, thoroughgoing surveillance and proper implementation of existing laws and policies for the prisoners, so that the ongoing situation can be healed and made better and we are well prepared for such pandemics in future.