Repopulation of prisons during pandemic is dangerous

Context: Recently, the Delhi’s high-powered committee (HPC) for the decongestion of prisons directed that the undertrials and convicts  must return to prisons from early December.

Background of the issue

  • Given the contagious nature of COVID-19 and overcrowding in prisons, the court ordered for depopulation of prisons.
  • The court ordered state governments to form HPCs to determine the criteria for release.
  • Following the Supreme Court order, in March 2020, India’s prisons released convicts on emergency parole, and undertrials on interim bail.

Why have prison populations increased during a pandemic which necessitated decongestion?

  • High number of lockdown-related arrests reveals that policing priorities have been misplaced and a public health crisis has been treated more as a law and order issue.
  • For example, arrests made during the first three phases of the lockdown, unusual number of arrests under Excise Act (15.8 per cent) and the Public Gambling Act.
  • Reduced court capacities due to the pandemic, have impaired the access to bail for arrested persons.
  • The adoption of a virtual court system also aggravated judicial delays.
  • Failure of the criminal justice system (Police, courts and prisons) to work in an integrated manner towards the decongestion even during this pandemic.

What are the causes for the historically burdened prison system?

  • The problem of over-arrests and inherent problems of policing have never been addressed.
  • Reforms to reduce the undertrial prison population have not been implemented effectively.
  • High representation of undertrials in the total prison population (55-90 per cent) is a major cause of concern.

With Global health experts not signalling an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, the call for the inmates to safely return to prisons is entirely misplaced and dangerous.


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