The Bombay High Court on Tuesday passed directions while hearing two PILs alleging laxity on part of the state government in ensuring safe and early release of some 14,000 prisoners negligible to be released as per directions of the State High Power Committee dated May 11, 2020.
Division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice KK Tated directed Public Prosecutor Deepak Thakare to take instructions from the State regarding testing of inmates who came in contact with any of the 158 inmates who tested positive for Covid-19 at Arthur Road Prison.
In its order, the HPC directed the release of 50% of the 37,192 prisoners in the State, which is more than 18,500 inmates.
Appearing on behalf of both the petitioners People's Union for Civil Liberties and Archana Rupwate, Senior Advocate Mihir Desai raised various contentions before the Court. Firstly, he referred to the recommendations made by the High Powered Committee, chaired by Justice AA Sayed, to decongest the Correctional Homes of its inmates to prevent spread of infection.
Desai argued that although the State has taken steps to bring down the number of inmates by following the guidelines issued by the High Powered Committee, more than 14,000 bail applications are pending before diverse criminal courts. Since the judicial officers presiding over such courts are required to issue directions for release of undertrial prisoners for a fixed number of days based on the guidelines, keeping such large number of applications pending tends to frustrate the purpose for which the HPC came to be constituted in terms of the Supreme Court's order dated March 23.
Thus, Desai prayed for appropriate directions to the relevant courts for early disposal of such applications. The bench refused to pass directions in this regard and observed-
"Even though the High Powered Committee has delineated categories of under-trial prisoners who would be entitled to release on interim bail, we are of the opinion that the relevant courts are not supposed to act as mere post-offices and allow applications without application of mind. We have no doubt in our mind that in the light of the guidelines issued by the High Powered Committee, the relevant courts, to the best of its ability and with the resources available at its disposal, have been striving to take appropriate steps to dispose of as many applications for bail as possible in accordance with law and in the light of the guidelines."
Secondly, Desai contended that 158 inmates of Arthur Road have tested positive for Covid-19 and since the spread of the said virus is by way of transmission from one to the other, there is an imminent need to have other inmates of Arthur Road, who might have come into contact with the Covid-19 positive inmates, tested, so as to prevent further spread of the infection.
Moreover, Desai argued that even though family members of a Covid-19 positive inmates are informed in other prisons, there is no system in place to inform family members of inmates at Arthur Road. Also, personal meetings of inmates with their family members/relatives have been stopped and presently there is no system in place by which interaction between the inmates and their family members/relatives is possible. Thus, concerned authorities may be directed to ensure that each inmate can at least establish contact with his/her family members/relatives through two phone calls per week.
PP Thakare referred to a memo dated May 24, 2020 issued by the Additional Director General of Police & Inspector General of Prisons & Correctional Services, Maharashtra State, Pune. Video Conferencing facilities are being arranged so that the inmates can at least establish contact and talk to their family members/relatives, he said.
However, Desai argued there is no certainty as to when the VC facility would be commissioned. Till such time it is commissioned, allowing two phone calls a week would ensure to the benefit of the inmates in these trying times, Desai urged the Court.
"We trust that the contents of the memo dated May 24, 2020 shall be given full effect by the Correctional Home authorities. However, having regard to the uncertainties of connectivity, an additional facility of allowing the inmates to reach out to their family members/relatives by making phone calls could be allowed till such time Video Conferencing facilities are commissioned and even thereafter, if there is lack of connectivity."
Finally, Desai raised another grievance regarding the system of transmitting money by money orders having been discontinued presently, the family members/relatives of the inmates of the Correctional Homes are no longer in a position to provide money to them for purchase of essentials from the canteens of the Correctional Homes and, therefore, separate bank accounts for all the inmates ought to be opened where deposits can be made by such family members/relatives of the inmates.
PP Thakare informed the Court that a circular dated April 8, 2020 provides for every Jailor to open a bank account and give all particulars for facilitating deposits.
The bench observed-
"Having read such circular, we direct the Correctional Homes authorities to implement the instruction therein immediately. The bank account number as well as all other requisite particulars for transfer of money shall be displayed by the Correctional Homes authorities on their website for information of all concerned. Once deposits are made by the family members/relatives of any inmate in such a bank account, the same shall be utilized in a manner that benefits him, according to law."
The matter was adjourned for two weeks and the next date of hearing is June 9, 2020.
State's General Report
The Additional Director General Of Police and Inspector General of Prisons & Correctional Services, Pune submitted a general report before the Court. The report states that prisons in Maharashtra are already overcrowded and so a manageable number of prisoners considering the current scenario would be 16,000 inmates.
Moreover, in order to avoid the spread of the deadly virus in prisons, eight overcrowded prisons namely Arthur Road, Thane, Yerwada, Nagpur, Nashik, Aurangabad, Kalyan and Byculla have been locked down. Also, special attention is being paid to vulnerable categories of prisoners, for example- older prisoners, pregnant women, those suffering from asthma, diabetes etc, the report states.
Furthermore, the Court was informed that online money transactions are allowed for inmates in the current scenario and cost of diet, medicine and hygiene products is being borne by the State.
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