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'Adopt Public Health Centric Approach, Not Offence Centric': Representation Made To Delhi High Powered Committee To Revisit Criteria For Decongestion Of Prisons

Akshita Saxena
4 May 2021 11:45 AM GMT
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In view of the rapid surge of Covid-19 inside Delhi's prisons, a representation has been made to the High Powered Committee seeking immediate decongestion of all prisons in the city, to protect the right to life and health of the inmates, especially women.

The representation has been made by Advocates Vrinda Grover and Soutik Banerjee, Prof. Pratiksha Baxi and public health activist, Sarojini N.

They have urged the Committee to revisit the criteria devised by it last year, during the first wave of the pandemic, for releases of prisoners.

The letter states that current wave is rather more deadly and has been proving fatal for even the younger generation. Thus, it is expedient that a revaluation be carried out in the approach towards release of prisoners on Interim Bail/ Emergency parole.

It is stated that the existing approach of categorising undertrial prisoners and convicts solely on the basis of the nature and gravity of offence/punishment, for purposes of release on interim bail, will not address the emergent situation to combat the pandemic.

"The criteria set out for purposes of awarding Interim Bail and Emergency Parole, must be premised on and take into consideration the overall holding capacity of prisons, health related vulnerabilities, comorbidities, disabilities including physical disability and mental illness or mental health concerns, belonging to marginalised social groups, special physiological needs of women, and age-related ailments," the letter states.

It is pointed out that the spread of Covid-19 is largely aggravated by structural and systemic issues in prisons including hygiene, cleanliness and exposure to common surfaces.

Thus, it is stated that women prisoners are at a greater risk as women jails are not designed to address issues of female health and hygiene, including reproductive and menstrual needs.

"The shared sanitation and hygienic facilities in women's prisons, especially washrooms with inadequate facilities to manage menstrual needs poses a greater risk of exposure to the Covid-19 virus in female only prisons. There is an immediate need to drastically decongest all women's jails in that regard, almost to an extent that washrooms need not be shared by many inmates, and there can be regular sanitization of washroom surfaces after usage by an inmate," the letter states. It also makes a reference to the advisories issued by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in this regard.

Presently, over 20,000 prisoners are lodged in Delhi prisons and another 3000+ prisoners are expected to return pursuant to directions for their surrender. This is against the sanctioned strength of 10,000.

Thus, in order to maintain adequate social distancing in these prisons, the letter states, it would be necessary to carry out a reduction in the occupancy to 50% of the sanctioned capacity–which would place the number of inmates that can be held by following distancing norms at around 5,000.

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