Nazneen Sultana

While the State health machinery is heavily entrusted with the responsibility of healthcare towards the general public, there has been an over dependence of the prisons on the limited resources due to inadequate healthcare infrastructure and personnel within the prison premises. Hence, there is an urgent need to upgrade the functioning of the hospitals inside the prison premises.

The Covid-19 pandemic, a ubiquitous phenomenon, brought the entire world to a standstill causing absolute mayhem to human civilization. While there were constant deliberations on matters related to healthcare preparedness, development of vaccines and global economic crisis, the issue of overcrowded prisons made it to the headlines of the news articles, which called for immediate attention to the otherwise less-talked-about difficulties of the prison inmates. This virus has exposed many constraints in the functioning of different institutions including the prison system that was already inundated with loopholes long ignored.

The situation looks grim; also most of the prisons in India, including those in Assam, are overcrowded with undertrial prisoners, which remains to be one of the long-standing issues yet to be addressed. As per the Prison Statistics India 2019 report, the overall occupancy rate in prisons stands at 118.5%. Prison inmates live in close proximity with each other with limited scope to maintain social and physical distancing. Given this, it was a big challenge on the part of the administration to prevent the spread of the contagious disease within the prisons.

Even during normal times, prison inmates often find themselves in gruelling circumstances such as lack of adequate water for sanitization, unclean washrooms and toilets, lack of adequate soaps, etc. A crisis like the outbreak of Covid-19 raises serious concern for the inmates since our prisons lack adequate health and hygiene facilities. Besides, the prison acts as a hotbed for certain communicable and non-communicable diseases thereby placing the lives of the prison inmates at high risk if their health issues are not addressed. There ostensibly seems to exist equal healthcare facilities for both the general public and the incarcerated ones; albeit, in reality prisoners are devoid of proper healthcare facilities. As Justice Anthony M Kennedy rightly said, “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in a civilized society.” The much-needed equity in terms of ‘Availability, Adequacy, Accessibility, Affordability and Appropriateness’ are missing or minimal. Besides, systematic breakdown such as policy constraint and resource limitation within the criminal justice system and neglect towards the prison settings intensifies the problems of the prisoners manifold.

Initially, when the number of Covid-19 cases started rising in the country, the Supreme Court on March 23, 2020, issued directives to the State governments to constitute high-powered committees for deciding the categories of inmates to be released in view of decongesting the prison. In this line, the Assam Government reportedly released a large number of prisoners on parole and bail to prevent further transmission of the virus within the prisons. However, when looked at these efforts, it can be seen that the criteria was legalistic rather than humanistic unlike in the case of the general public.

Things grew worse when the Covid-19 menace found its footing within the prison premises and the jails in Assam have reportedly been the hotspot of the contagion infecting a large number of inmates. In response the Gauhati High Court took suo motu cognizance of the issue and ordered the State Government to provide the inmates with proper facilities and treatments. No doubt, policies and measures have been undertaken to protect the inmates from getting infected – supply of adequate water, sanitizers and masks inside the prison, creation of temporary prisons, quarantine services, etc. However, the responsibility of the policymakers and practitioners doesn’t end here. Short-term measures like releasing prisoners were needed no doubt in this crisis scenario but an endeavour should be towards bringing in long-term solutions through prison reforms.

After a yearlong fight with the pandemic and invention of vaccines, as we slowly learn to tame the spread of the virus and steer through the post-Covid-19 phenomenon, the issue of the plight of the prison population continues to be one of the challenging tasks calling for consistent and overarching efforts. While a lot of data have been generated with regard to release of inmates in Assam but at the same time, there has been a constant entry of new inmates ultimately flooding the prison premises. Besides, while the State health machinery is heavily entrusted with the responsibility of healthcare towards the general public, there has been an overdependence of the prisons on the limited resources due to inadequate healthcare infrastructure and personnel within the prison premises. Hence, there is an urgent need to upgrade the functioning of the hospitals inside the prison premises. Also the issue of overcrowding that continues to plague the Assam prisons lay bare the pre-existing faultiness of the judiciary to give effect to speedy trials and release inmates that pose no risk to the society.

The policymakers, practitioners and the jurists can thereby play an integral part in terms of decisions and sentencing policies to decongest the prisons. Alternatives to detention or suspension of sentences wherever applicable and reducing arrests can serve as a catalyst to reduce new entries to the prisons. The Government needs to recognize the fact that the vulnerability of the prison population in the light of Covid-19 can have ramifications in the wider community since the majority of the inmates return to the community after completing their term. Prison health should equally be considered indispensable to the public health discourse in response to this global crisis. Apart from these, collective efforts of the government and non-governmental sectors are needed in order to uphold the well-being of the prisoners and prevent them from being on the receiving end of any unprecedented crisis. Most importantly, there lies the ardent task of a paradigm shift with regard to perceiving prisoners as any other human being in the public domain in view of adapting to the ‘new normal’ post-Covid phase. Taking into consideration these extraordinary times, it can be a great opportunity for the policymakers to bring forth the prison reforms that have long been overdue.