March 23, 2020
New Delhi, India
To prevent escalation of the kind of clashes which erupted in Dum Dum Central Correctional Home in Kolkata, West Bengal, over emergency restrictions as a result of concerns over the spread of COVID-19 in confined spaces, prison authorities must enable alternate communications, such as phone calls and video conferencing, as well as develop awareness with inmates and staff, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) said today.
The ban on family visits and reduced court productions triggered violent clashes on 21 March 2020; several prisoners and prison staff were injured, records burnt and property destroyed.
CHRI, which has worked extensively on prison reforms in India, urged state governments to “take preventive measures to protect the life of prisoners and ensure fair and equal access to safety and health care facilities, equivalent to that available in the community.” It suggested the following immediate steps to effectively check the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and highlighted the need to reduce overcrowding in prisons which was a major risk factor in combating the pandemic.
An additional long-term problem is overcrowding in Indian prisons, CHRI asserted, saying that authorities could consider temporary release of long-term convicts, as per applicable rules.
Its International Director, Sanjoy Hazarika, pressed the judiciary “to take effective steps to immediately reduce the number of persons sent to judicial custody; review and order release of prisoners and ensure remote/virtual hearings of all urgent or bail applications of those in custody”. These are in furtherance of the Supreme Court order today that has directed the setup of a High Powered Committee comprising of the Chairman of the State Legal Services Committee, the Principal Secretary (Home/Prisons), Director General of Prisons, to determine which class of prisoners can be released on parole or on interim bail ‘for such period as may be thought appropriate’.
CHRI suggested that Under Trial Review Committees, a district level review body on prisoners’ cases, must meet before 31 March 2020, and recommended that courts release of all eligible prisoners.
In addition, CHRI said that, Boards of Visitors, a district level committee mandated to regularly review prison conditions, must designate one official visitor, to conduct visits to prisons on a weekly basis, to assess the implementation of precautionary measures and address prisoners’ concerns.
CHRI noted that the Kolkata incident resembled the recent jail riots in the US, Iran, Italy, Sri Lanka, Lebanon and Columbia recently in response to extreme restrictions.
Cognizant of the risks and impending crisis, CHRI has prepared a guidance document on ‘COVID-19 and Prisons: Ensuring an Effective Response’ for stakeholders to “to undertake effective measures to ensure protection of all prisoners, prison administrators and staff, prison visitors and all persons associated with prisons.”
The document contains practical recommendations running through various processes of prison management and existing frameworks to address prison issues. In the document, CHRI emphasises that “while one must take all adequate steps to limit infections, it is important to uphold human rights principles and ensure no undue hardships are cast upon prisoners in the garb of precautionary measures.”
The pandemic COVID-19 has thrown unprecedented challenges to governance systems across the world. Amid the pandemic outbreak of the virus, prisons marked by overcrowded spaces and inadequate healthcare are most vulnerable. “While state institutions gear up with emergency mechanisms to deal with the crisis, it is equally important that restrictive measures adhere to basic human rights principles,” said Madhurima Dhanuka, head of CHRI’s Prison Reforms Programme.