Decongesting prisons

Pandemic demands considerate approach

Decongesting prisons

In an attempt to contain the Covid-19 outbreak by decongesting prisons, it was in March-end that the Supreme Court directed states and UTs to set up committees which would consider releasing on parole convicts jailed for up to seven years. A similar benefit was suggested for those awaiting trial for offences entailing a maximum sentence of seven years. The ‘bitter truth is that prisons are overcrowded, making it difficult to maintain social distancing’, the court observed. A humane approach that was suggested, however, appeared to be missing when it came to releasing an 80-year-old Maoist ideologue, and an Assamese peasant activist. Both contracted the virus in jail.

There is no disagreement that the authorities ought to be circumspect about releasing inmates charged with rape or murder. But, leniency towards petty offenders, older and medically vulnerable undertrials charged with non-violent offences, and even political prisoners, is worth serious deliberation. Grant of bail is the rule, its refusal the exception. When securing the presence of the accused at the trial is the primary objective, which can be well served by letting him or her out of prison as a temporary measure. Those entrusted with taking that decision do not have it easy though. The number of Covid-positive cases in Guwahati Central Jail, for instance, is touching 200. The instinctive reaction would be to avoid risking the health of the inmates, as also the jail staff. But what if some decide to jump bail, and leave no trace?

The model worked out by Maharashtra, hit hard by Covid-19, merits a look. The state’s high-powered panel has already decided to release half of the total inmates, with stringent conditions. The Bombay High Court recently refused to admit a plea to allow prisoners, released on temporary bail, to appear before the jurisdictional SHO through video calls as it would be difficult to ascertain their location. Undertrials could be out initially for 45 days by furnishing personal bonds. They would be required to report to a police station once every 30 days. The pandemic demands a pragmatic and considerate outlook.

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