The Supreme Court on Monday asked the states to decongest prisons by considering the release of undertrials and convicts of offences with maximum seven years jail term, in view of the fear of the spread of coronavirus inside the prisons across the country.
The top court also directed to stop the physical presence of undertrials before the trial courts for extension of remand or other purposes. Instead, it ordered to take recourse to video conferencing for the purpose.
The court said it has become imperative to ensure that the spread of the Coronavirus within the prisons was controlled, since overcrowding was a matter of serious concern over there, particularly in the present context.
A bench presided over by Chief Justice S A Bobde directed all the states to constitute a high power committee of Home Secretary, Director General, Prisons and chairman of the state legal service authority to determine which class of convicts or undertrials can be released on parole or interim bail.
"Looking into the possible threat of transmission and fatal consequences, it is necessary that prisons must ensure maximum possible distancing among the prisoners including undertrials," the bench said, in a Suo Motu matter.
In view of the possibility of outside transmission, the bench directed that transfer of prisoners from one prison to another for routine reasons must not be resorted except for decongestion to ensure social distancing and medical assistance to an ill prisoner.
"Also, there should not be any delay in shifting sick person to a Nodal Medical Institution in case of any possibility of infection is seen," the bench said.
Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, acting as amicus curiae, submitted those petty offenders, old prisoners should be released but jail authorities should not grant discretion in this regard.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said medical officers have been instructed to immediately report any sick undertrial prisoners inside the jail to authorities. He further pointed out other measures being undertaken for screening and cleaning etc in the prisons.
The court also directed that prison specific readiness and response plans must be developed in consultation with medical experts.
In this regard, “Interim guidance on Scaling-up Covid-19 Outbreak in Readiness and Response Operations in camps and camp-like settings” jointly developed by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC), International Organisation for Migration (IOM), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and World Health Organisation (WHO), published by Inter-Agency Standing Committee of United Nations on March 17, 2020 may be taken into consideration, it said.
The court had on March 16 issued notice to all states' chief secretaries and jail heads asking them to respond to overcrowding in prisons, in view of a high risk of transmission of Covid-19 to the prison inmates.
There are 1339 prisons in this country with approximately 4,66,084 inmates.