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Coronavirus: SC takes suo motu note of overcrowding in prisons, seeks info from all states and UTs

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New Delhi, Mar 16 :  The Supreme Court on Monday took suo motu cognisance of overcrowding of prisons across the country and said it is difficult for jail inmates to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which has been declared as pandemic by the World Health Organization.

The top court noted that if prompt measures are not taken, the situation might worsen in India, which has so far reported 114 positive cases.

Expressing concern over the overcrowding of prisons, the top court said that there are 1,339 prisons in this country housing approximately 4,66,084 inmates.

Quoting a report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), it said the occupancy rate of Indian prisons is at 117.6 per cent, and in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Sikkim, the occupancy rate is as high as 176.5 per cent and 157.3 per cent respectively.

A bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justice L Nageswara Rao said that like most other viral diseases, the susceptibility of COVID-19 is greater in overcrowded places, mass gatherings and studies indicate that contagious viruses such as COVID-19 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,” it said.

The top court said that several prison staff enter the prisons regularly, and so do visitors and lawyers and therefore, there is a high risk of transmission of COVID-19 to the prison inmates.

“For the reasons…our prisons can become fertile breeding grounds for incubation of COVID-19. We are of the opinion that there is an imminent need to take steps on an urgent basis to prevent the contagion of COVID-19 virus in our prisons. If prisoners are tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, immediate measures have to be taken for their quarantining and medical treatment,” it said.

The top court added that some state governments and their Departments of Prisons have already taken preventive measures, while some states are yet to take such steps.

It noted the example of Kerala, where isolation cells have been set up within prisons and those suffering with COVID-19 symptoms such as cold and fever are being moved to these isolation cells.

The top court said that 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.

It also noted that similar arrangements are being made in Tihar Jail in Delhi, where all the 17,500 inmates 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,” it further added.

The bench said that it do not have information about the measures taken by the other state governments in their prisons to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We consider it appropriate to direct that notices be issued to the Chief Secretaries/Administrators, Home Secretaries, Directors General of all the Prisons and Department of Social Welfare of all the States and the Union Territories, to show cause why directions should not be issued for dealing with the present health crisis arising out of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country,” the bench said.

It added that the states and Union Territories should also suggest immediate measures which should be adopted for the medical assistance to the prisoners in all jails and the juveniles lodged in the remand homes and for protection of their health and welfare.

The top court asked all the states and Union territories to submit their replies in writing before March 20 to Attorney General K K Venugopal, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta and amicus curiae Dushyant Dave with particulars of the steps being taken and the relevant data necessary for implementing the measures to prevent the possible spread of the coronavirus among the prisoners and juveniles.

It asked the all the States and UTs to ensure that a responsible officer of their choice duly authorised to take decision in the matter shall be made available to this court on the next date of hearing on March 23.

The top court made it clear that it may direct such number of parties to appear in the Court as may be found appropriate on all dates of hearing of the matter.

It noted that whereas many nations have reached the epidemic level (which is the final stage), India is still at the second stage where the spread is at the local level.

“Therefore, if prompt measures are taken, it is believed that COVID-19 can be prevented from reaching the third and fourth stages or in any event, minimise the damage. The Government of India and State Governments are taking all possible steps to curb the contagion of the COVID-19 virus,” it said.

The bench said that Centre and the respective States have also issued several advisories to the citizens, regarding the prevention of the further spread of the COVID-19 virus including one of maintaining social distancing, which is considered to be the most effective way of stopping the contagion of COVID-19 virus.

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