Subhash Gatade

Late in March, Sirous Asgari, a materials science and engineering professor from Iran, who is at present detained by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), had warned about the “inhumane” conditions at the ICE facility that could turn it into a hot spot of Covid-19 fatalities.

April has made his worst nightmares come true. Asgari, who has a history of respiratory problems, has been infected by the Novel Coronavirus, which causes the Covid-19 disease. The news created international outrage last month. Not only the Iranian foreign ministry, many United States lawmakers and human rights groups also demanded his release, but it was not to be.

At the facility in which Asgari is still lodged (though he has been exonerated of all the charges he faced in the United States), people are usually detained for no more than 72 hours, but the Coronavirus outbreak has delayed deportations. People like him are simply caught up in the system. Asgari can leave the United States and resume work in Iran—where the viral epidemic has already claimed more than 60,000 lives—because he simply isn’t being taken before a judge.

Asgari’s plight reminds of another incarceration, this one in an Indian jail; that of Anand Teltumbde, who has been arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon case. On 26 April, noted activist-filmmaker Anand Patwardhan had, in a Facebook post, expressed deep concern about the health of 70-year-old Teltumbde, who also suffers from respiratory problems.

Patwardhan has drawn attention to Teltumbde’s condition after it was revealed that NIA personnel at the same Pedder Road (now Gopalrao Deshmukh Marg) premises of the NIA, where he was temporarily lodged, had tested positive for Covid-19. Teltumbde has since been shifted to Taloja Jail in Navi Mumbai, but this is an overcrowded prison that is full to more than 50% capacity by the state government’s own account.

Early in April, Taloja Jail authorities had asked various district and sessions courts in Maharashtra not to send any more prisoners there. The letter specifically mentioned that this jail, with a capacity to house 2,124, has over 3,000 inmates and that doctors had advised authorities that with Covid-19 on the cusp of “community spread” would make accommodating more inmates dangerous.

This is the same Taloja Jail where a few other accused in the same Bhima-Koregaon case have been lodged. This includes 80-year-old poet-activist-journalist Varavara Rao, who told his family in the first week of April about the many hardships he was facing in prisons and the growing fears among the detainees of contracting Covid-19 infections.

Pavana, the poet’s daughter, reported that her father spoke of water scarcity inside the prison and no scope for sanitation or social distancing. The over-crowded barracks which lack basic hygiene exacerbate the chances of virus spread. Koel, daughter of retired professor Shoma Sen who is also lodged there in the same case, narrated similar experiences of the conditions there. Her mother reportedly told her that they are not being provided masks or any other protective measures. “She stays with 30 people in one cell and they sleep like sardines. How will they keep social distancing?” Koel said.

Everyone who is lodged there, whether facing trial or convicted, is under the threat of being infected with this virus. A health emergency will become an additional punishment for those incarcerated—and everybody in their proximity.

One does not know why the order of the Supreme Court last month, to release some prisoners on parole to reduce the crowding in prisons during the Covid-19 outbreak, is not being followed in true spirit. Chief Justice AS Bobde had asked every state to constitute a high-powered committee to determine which class of prisoners can be released on parole or interim bail. The apex court had made it clear that prisoners convicted or charged with offences having a jail term of up to seven years can be released on parole to avoid overcrowding in jails during the Covid-19 outbreak.

“The Maharashtra state government had announced that it would soon release 11,000 incarcerated persons from the state’s 60 prisons. But over a month later, the home department has only released a little over 4,000 prisoners,” the court noted. Going by the latest (February 2020) data, there were 36,713 prisoners incarcerated in the state and if 11,000 had been released, as it has promised, the burden would have reduced by 25%.

It needs to be emphasised that overcrowding of jails is a serious problem in India. Jails often accommodate twice as many prisoners than they have room or financial resources for. The first of its kind India Justice Report released in 2019 by civil society organisations narrates how court rulings over the years have “repeatedly highlighted overcrowding; poor sanitation and nutrition; prisoner overstays; the shortage of prison staff, doctors and escorts to bring prisoners to court; the unavailability of timely, quality legal aid; poor mechanisms to review prisoner status; the absence of mandated statutory mechanisms of prison oversight, as well as the near absence of correctional and aftercare services for released prisoners.”

The alarming situation in jails and the health risk that Covid-19 poses to inmates is the reason why civil liberty and democratic rights organisations are raising the cry to decongest jails drastically so as to avoid unnecessary tragedies. The People’s Union for Democratic Rights has said that it has sent representations to the government and its high powered committees demanding provision of bail, irrespective of the nature of the charges, to elderly inmates and those with health issues.

Their urgency is on account of the fact that jails in India are known to be amongst fertile breeding grounds for infectious diseases and the risk to life is obvious for those who are more vulnerable.

It has also appealed to the central government and the courts to recognise the extraordinary circumstances created by the Covid-19 pandemic and to permit interim bail for Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha and the many others of advanced age and with existing ailments.

Whether such voices can gain more strength in coming days remains to be seen. The national and international community must speak out about the health risk to all prisoners, especially those still facing trial, who have not been found guilty, and demand their release. Perhaps the emphasis needs to be on what Patwardhan has said in his Facebook post: “State has no right to jeopardise the lives of anyone, let alone prisoners who have not yet been tried and must be presumed innocent.”

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