In a huge relief to prisoners across the State of Maharashtra, the State High Power Committee has decided to release more than 17,000 undertrials/prisoners out of the total of 35,239 prisoners in the State.
With the total number of Covid-19 positive cases at Arthur Road jail rising to 185, fresh positive cases being detected at Byculla women's prison and Satara District prison, the potential risk of infections amongst prisoners housed in overcrowded prisons has increased significantly.
The High Power Committee (HPC) comprises Justice AA Sayed, Sanjay Chahande, Additional Chief Secretary (A&S) Home, Govt. of Maharashtra and SN Pandey, Director General Prisons, Maharashtra.
This decision of the said Committee came in on Monday. The Committee also heard the representation made by Advocate SB Talekar after the High Court directed the same in an order dated April 23, 2020. Talekar had written to the Chief Justice of India and Chief Justice of Bombay High Court to implement Supreme Court's order dated March 23 and release prisoners on parole to prevent outbreak of Covid-19 in prisons which are already overcrowded.
The HPC heard Advocate Talekar through video conferencing on the issue of alleged discrimination between prsioners as a result of the decison of HPC to exclude undertrial or convicted prisoners charged or convicted under special enactments like MCOCA, PMLA, MPID, NDPS, UAPA, etc. from availing the benefit of interim bail/parole. The benefit has been granted to other undertrial or convicted prisoners charged/convicted for offences carrying a maximum punishment of 7 years or less.
Talekar contended that a blanket exclusion of the prisoners who are charged/convicted for offences made under special enactments is arbitrary and defeats the thrust of the directions of the Supreme Court in the order dated March 23.
Referring to the same order, the Committee pointed out that the apex court had left it to the discretion of the HPC to determine the category of prisoners who should be released depending upon the nature of offence, the duration of sentence etc.
Moreover, HPC noted that in an order dated April 13, the Supreme Court has further clarified its order dated March 23 as follows:
"We make it clear that we have not directed the States/Union Territories to compulsorily release the prisoners from their respective prisons. The purpose of our aforesaid order was to ensure that States/Union Territories to assess the situation in their prisons having regard to the outbreak of the present pandemic in the country and release certain prisoners and for that purpose to determine the category of prisoners to be released. We make it clear that the aforesaid order is intended to be implemented fully in letter and spirit."
The HPC also observed that till date the Supreme Court has not interfered with its decision dated March 25, determining the category of prisoners to be released. HPC said-
"It is required to be noted in the present representation dated 08-04-2020, which has been converted to suo moto criminal PIL, Advocate Shri Talekar has not disclosed that he represents his clients Nitin Shelke and Madhukar Suryawanshi who are incarcerated in Harsul prison in Aurangabad interalia for offences under the MPID Act, which is a Special Act."
The aforesaid persons had filed a writ petition before the Aurangabad Bench challenging the HPC's decision dated March 25 excluding the prisoners who are charged/convicted of offences punishable under Special Acts including MPID Act, from availing temporary bail/parole.
The Committee refused to reconsider its decision dated March 25 and said-
"Be that as it may, it appears that Shri Talekar is primarily representing his clients Nitin Shelke and Madhukar Suryawanshi who are incarcerated in Harsul prison in Aurangabad for offences interalia under the MPID Act, which is a Special Act.
We are unable to agree with the contention of Mr. Talekar. The object was only to release some of the prisoners and not all the prisoners. There is a reasonable basis for the classification which has been done under the orders of the Hon'ble Supreme Court to release some of the prisoners."
Thus, Talekar's representation was rejected. Finally, the HPC clarified-
"It may be noted that by a separate decision of this Committee taken today, more prisoners than what was decided in the earlier decision of the HPC dated 25-03-2020 are to be released, which would substantially decongest the prisons and about 50% of prisoners out of the prison population of 35,239 are now expected to be released."