Don’t Compromise Prisoners’ Rights – Prioritise Healthcare: CHRI

Don’t Compromise Prisoners’ Rights – Prioritise Healthcare: CHRI

July 23, 2020

The Central and state governments in India must adhere to national protocols and international standards in ensuring that rights of prisoners are upheld and not compromised during the pandemic, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) said today.

“There is an urgent need to prioritise healthcare inside prisons and include it as part of public health programmes while improving official monitoring,” said Madhurima Dhanuka, the head of CHRI’s prison reforms programme.

CHRI focused attention to the notion of ‘Prison health as a part of Public Health’ – first underlined by World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Moscow Declaration in 2003 and again in the United Nation’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisons or the Nelson Mandela Rules in 2015. The latter mandated the healthcare of prisoners as State responsibility, it reminded, highlighting the absolute need for public and prison healthcare to work in tandem with each other.

The international human rights group expressed deep concern over the increasing growth of COVID-19 positive cases across prisons: as on July 13, 2020, a total of 1441 cases of inmates and prison staff tested positive for the novel coronavirus in India. Virus-induced fatalities stand at six but are suspected to higher.

The graph has been high especially in Jammu and Kashmir’s Anantnag district jail and Guwahati Central Jail where half the population of inmates have reportedly tested positive.

“Factors like confined space, overcrowding, poor health and sanitary conditions, underlying health conditions like TB, HIV, hepatitis make the prison population extremely vulnerable to contracting and spreading the virus,” said CHRI’s International Director, Sanjoy Hazarika.

He cited official delay in the treatment of human rights defenders such as the poet 81-year-old Varavara Rao in Maharashtra and the activist Akhil Gogoi in Assam. Both had known existing ailments and co-morbidities and were hospitalized only after they tested positive. Till that time, they had been held inside prisons without adequate precautions This is part of a larger wave of infections affecting other prisoners, who are similarly placed and continue to be at risk of contracting COVID-19.

CHRI, which has worked extensively on prison reforms in India, emphasised that state governments must follow the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for Handling Arrested Persons, Detainees and Inmates during the Pandemic, prepared by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The SOP was circulated to all states on May 2, 2020, as part of its advisory on ‘Management of COVID-19 in Indian Prisons.’ Yet, 18 States and Union Territories have reported positive cases, with Maharashtra at the top (763).

“The present situation necessitates that prisons are regularly monitored both by senior prison officers, as well as by external bodies such as Board of Visitors, National and State Human Rights Commissions and judicial officers,” said Ms. Dhanuka of CHRI’s Prisons Reform programme. It is vital that the monitoring ensures that:

  • There is no discrimination in healthcare services
  • Prisoners are kept in isolation only for medical purposes and on the recommendations of expert medical authority
  • The pandemic is not used as a justification for undermining human rights standards in prisons
  • Prisoners and staff have access to information and training with regard to protection against the disease
  • Prisons are implementing precautionary as well as emergency measures
  • Food, medical and other essential supplies are adequately available
  • Special needs of vulnerable categories of prisoners such as women, transgender, differently abled, mentally ill, foreign national prisoners, etc. are addressed
  • Adequate support and care is provided for prison staff and their families against contraction of the infection

To support the monitoring of prisons and to ensure that prisons are being provided effective healthcare, CHRI has developed two checklists to assist the internal and external monitors of prisons, Dhanuka added. They are reporting and oversight tools, developed for prison heads and for independent oversight bodies, based on the SOP.

Further, as restrictions on prison visits continue, state prison departments should also proactively disclose on their websites information on, number of COVID positive cases, prison-wise occupancy rates and any other information relevant to be known by family members and lawyers of prisoners, underlined CHRI.

To prevent decongestion in prisons, CHRI also called upon the High Powered Committees (HPCs) and Under Trial Review Committees (UTRC) to actively suggest cases for temporary release on bail or parole and review prisoner cases respectively. “The role of the HPCs and UTRCs is vital in preventing prisons to become COVID hotspots. They must seek regular reports from the prison administration on precautionary measures undertaken,” it said.

For further information, contact:

Sanjoy Hazarika,,

Madhurima Dhanuka,