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This article is written by Gitika Jain, from Amity University, Kolkata. This is an exhaustive article which deals with the decongestion of prisons in lieu of COVID 19.

Table of Contents


As we all know that jails and prisons only amplify infectious diseases such as Coronavirus because of the impossibility of the fact of social justice inside the jail as there lacks any space of movement. But to prevent death from coronavirus, criminal justice officials have the power to bring about a change in the laws governing the prisoners. Thus, it is important to keep a check on which state and local governments are taking measures to protect the people behind the bars because even they have the fundamental right to live peacefully. With the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, it has become an urgent need for long-term societal and institutional reform to protect the human rights of people behind the bars and lessen the number of Coronavirus deaths. 

Current scenario

The country’s largest prison Tihar Jail announced the plans according to which the criminals involved in a lesser degree of crimes could temporarily be released on March 23. On 16th March, the Supreme Court observed that there is a high degree of risk in the transmission of COVID-19 to the prisoners, the staff, the families of the prisoners, and the lawyers entertaining the case. It’s therefore directed to the Union of territories and state authorities to submit some written comments on the steps that are being taken to minimise the spread of pandemic among the prisoners and the juveniles behind the bars. On 23rd March some suggestions related to the protection of prisoners who are convicted for a tomb of seven years or less can be considered for an interim bail was given by the Supreme Court.

On the same day, it was also recommended by the Delhi Government to Delhi High Court with respect to the public interest litigation that there will be amendments in the rule to enable the prisoners who had already served one year of their sentence and the undertrials who had served three months in specific offences to avail parole. 

At the same time, Maharashtra also proposed similar kinds of releases of over 5000 people along with the necessity to conduct COVID-19 tests for all the prisoners. The Arthur road jail in Mumbai which has 3700 prisoners and only a capacity of less than a thousand has now set up 20 isolation centres for prisoners with COVID-19 symptoms. 

However, keeping in mind the life of people behind the bars, the question of the risk of people outside the bar arises because that way it will amount to passing the burden to society. 

Jails and COVID-19

The prisoners of Uttar Pradesh Baghpat jail have been recently found with COVID-19 symptoms. They were around 20 in number on 24th March. In India, there are more than 450000 prisoners and the report of 25th March back then imposed a grave challenge to India’s presence when at least 560 were claimed to be infected of the disease. According to the present statistics of India 2018 recorded by the National Crime Records Bureau the number of prisoners in India is 17.6 percent more than the authorised capacity. This picture clearly shows prison overcrowding especially in union territories and states like Uttar Pradesh where 76.5 percent is the exceeding limit of the number of prisoners. Tihar Jail is the house of 12106 prisoners where the capacity is only 5200 according to the 31st December, 2019 report. 

Further, there are total 12 States whose occupancy rate are below hundred percent which includes Odisha it is 6.1 %, Rajasthan 92%, Telangana 77.1 percent, Islam 93.2%, Bihar 9.3%, Punjab 7%, Andhra Pradesh 17.5%, Tripura 47.9 percent, Nagaland 30.5%, Kauwa 16.7%, Tamilnadu 60% and Manipur 72.3 percent.

The sanitation facilities in the prisons are also the main reason for the concern as claimed by the retired inspector general of prisons, Rajasthan, RK Saxena. According to the present statistics of India report 2018, 1559 prisoners died because of illness that included Tuberculosis, cancer, kidney-related disease, heart, lung, and liver whereas the total expenditure of prison remains only 4%. After the United States, China, Brazil, and Russia in terms of the present population according to the world prison brief which is a database on the present system is India.

In the United Kingdom, United States of America Iran, China, Italy, and France, where prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, the Commonwealth Human Rights initiative said for a release on March 23rd. Iran also released temporary 85000 inmates to control the spread of COVID-19 as per the reports on 17th March. 

The places in California also released some inmates because of the fear of the spread of the virus and the numbers of inmates reduced by 6% over 3 weeks. Similarly, the jails in New Jersey on March 23rd released a thousand prisoners

In India, the situation was such that with the news of the spread of this virus clashes broke out between police and inmates at dum dum Central correctional home in Kolkata when the families were not allowed to meet the inmates till 31st March because of the social distancing practices adopted at that time.

Medical facilities

According to RK Saksena, there is a specific need for better-trained doctors and medical officers who work in prisons. He further added that the resident doctors in Central prisons were not present at sub prisons that were located outside the cities but there lies the need for the visit of doctors to such places. 

Against the strength of 3220, in 2018 there were only 1914 medical personnel posted in Indian jails which indicates a shortage of over 40% according to the present statistics of India data. So for 243 inmates there lies only one medical personnel with Jharkhand for 1375 inmates paramedical staff followed by West Bengal at 923 and Uttar Pradesh at 737. 

According to the 2018-19 budget for the amount to be spent on prison inmates out of the total expenditure of Rs.1776 crore 4% for rupees 76 crores was spent on medical needs while 891 crore that is 50% was spent on food where the spending on cloth and welfare activities accounted for only 1.4 % each. Other facilities for the welfare of prison inmates include expenses on their sanitation and hygiene transportation facilities for their movement from one jail to another accounted for 42% for 751 crore rupees out of the total expenditure on inmates. According to the report of 2018 and 19 Delhi was the highest to spend and expenditure of 17.6 or 23 % on the medical expenditure followed by West Bengal at 12.6 crores or 16% and Uttar Pradesh at 10 crores 13%.

Passing the buck

Everything being said, it is important for the judiciary to worry about prison inmates on an everyday basis as they do in emergency situations. This pandemic has brought the Judiciary to a place to actively e show their concern for the prisoners. However, the release of prisoners is shifting the responsibility from the present system to the society at large and the focus should be on preventing the spread of disease within the prison and addressing this issue on a long-term basis rather than passing on the responsibility to two people at large. However, there are several states that have taken sound measures to control the outbreak of COVID-19 which included setting up of isolation wards quarantining any new prisoners screening of the prisoners on a regular basis including the staff and service providers for applying marks and implementing a rule to wear them all time limiting or prohibiting visitors and suspending any cultural activities for a certain period of time. 

For example, Kerala prisons began to take precautions well in advance because there were many students returning from China. The prison officials had educated inmates about the same so various precautions were taken like making cotton masks for anti-COVID-19 drive and having 3000 litres of hand sanitizer and soaps.

Additionally, Rajasthan and Jharkhand prisons also tried by decongesting the prisons and transferring the prisoners to other less congested prisons. There were also activities conducted by Punjab to identify places nearby that could be used as a prison for a temporary period of time.

Other steps taken to prevent the outbreak of the virus were making block-wise timing of availability of food and other services to prevent overcrowding in one place and taking special care of aged prisoners with respiratory problems. 

In addition to this, Gujarat, Manipur, Odisha, Dadra, Meghalaya, Daman and Diu, Delhi and Puducherry did not file any responses to the supreme court whereas Tamil Nadu Madhya Pradesh Kerala Andhra Pradesh Jammu and Kashmir Himachal Pradesh responded to the supreme court about the safety measures taken for the prisoners but they did not submit any response regarding the care of juveniles in remand homes. The other ways were to inform and make a place for the prisoners about the disease, its risk and preventive measures and conduct prison reforms programs to deal with the situations wisely. 

Attempts by court

  • There are many courts that have, for a temporary period, only a limited range of matters during the pandemic. Therefore the state remains legally bound to provide remedies to some victims whose human rights are violated which includes the persons whose rights have not been exercised properly during the time of the pandemic.
  • The persons who are in detention are legally entitled to have their detention checked by the court of law also during the time of emergency situations.
  • The right to have access to a court if any Liberty has been deprived of particular human and the right of persons, in general, can be done before the court during the pandemic.

There are a huge number of persons behind the bars that are waiting for their trial hearing and even some of them have been in free trial retention for years. Even detained in overcrowded prisons and very poor condition detention centres with 102 countries having over 110 percent of occupancy levels. Because of these reasons many detainees are suffering from several diseases like lack of clean drinking water access to proper ventilation and other minimum standards for detention conditions. Therefore, the situation even added to the Coronavirus outbreak risk and imposes a grave amount of threat to the life of detainees and prisoners. 

Major problems pertaining to prisons in India

  • Overcrowding- Increase in number of crimes and the decrease in the speed of trials are the major factors responsible for congestion in prisons. 
  • Corruption and extortion- The amount of extortion and the corruption involved in the world of prisoners is one of the factors responsible for crimes inside the prisons.
  • Unsatisfactory living conditions- Because of overcrowding in jails the living conditions of prisoners or not being maintained on a regular basis. concerns like diet clothing cleanliness and to unsatisfactory living conditions and continue in many parts of the country
  • Shortage of staff and poor training- This is another concern in Indian prisons for thousands of years. The ratio between present staff and the present population is approximately 1:7. 
  • Inequalities and distinctions- Even inside jails the presence are a victim of deprivation of their rights and inequalities they face because of the degree of crimes they commit.
  • Inadequate present programs- In addition to the issue of overcrowding, manpower shortage and other difficulties also add to the inadequacy of prison programs. 


A growing number of countries taking measures to release prisoners have resulted in some positive and some negative approaches towards the society and world at large. Releasing prisoners will lead to having additional human right concerns like:

  • Release of prisoners who are convicted for serious offences will be the violation of human rights of the society.
  • A large number of releases can lead to misuse and an urgent need to decongest prisons.


Thus, all witnessed the appropriate impact of COVID-19 on margins of the society in most vulnerable situations and which also throws light on discrimination in some parts in the situations and deprivation of their Liberty. If anything, Covid-19 clearly states that the origin for reforms, remand homes and societal transformation of human rights must be given utmost importance. Therefore it is high time that a long term perspective must be set to address systematic problems as well as to adopt immediate health and life-saving measures. This applies to every aspect be it criminal justice and penal systems which ensures respect for human rights and human dignity. 


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