SC asks states, UTs to consider releasing prisoners to decongest jails due to coronavirus

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday directed all states and Union Territories to constitute high-level committees to consider releasing on parole or interim bail prisoners and undertrials for offences entailing up to 7-year jail term to decongest prisons in the wake of coronavirus pandemic.

The top court said overcrowding of prisons is a matter of serious concern, particularly in the present context of coronavirus (COVID 19).

In regard to the provisions of Article 21 of the Constitution of India, it has become imperative to ensure that the spread of coronavirus within the prisons is controlled, the court said.

A bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justices L N Rao and Surya Kant said the state or UT could consider the release of prisoners who have been convicted or are undertrial for offences for which prescribed punishment is up to 7 years or less, with or without fine and the prisoner has been convicted for a lesser number of years than the maximum.

“We direct that each State/Union Territory shall constitute a High Powered Committee comprising of (i) Chairman of the State Legal Services Committee, (ii) the Principal Secretary (Home/Prison) by whatever designation is known as, (ii) Director General of Prison(s), to determine which class of prisoners can be released on parole or an interim bail for such period as may be thought appropriate,” it said.

The top court said it would be open for the High Powered Committee to determine the category of prisoners who should be released depending upon the nature of offence, the number of years to which he or she has been sentenced or the severity of the offence with which he/she is charged with and is facing trial or any other relevant factor, which the Committee may consider appropriate.

It also directed that the Undertrial Review Committee set up by the court in another matter, shall meet every week and take such decision in consultation with the concerned authority.

It said that the High Powered Committee shall take into account the directions contained its 2014 verdict of Arnesh Kumar versus State of Bihar.

It asked the states and UTs who have not filed their responses to do so within three weeks from today and listed the matter after three weeks.

“Taking into consideration the possibility of outside transmission, we direct that the physical presence of all the undertrial prisoners before the Courts must be stopped forthwith and recourse to video conferencing must be taken for all purposes,” the bench said, adding that the 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.

It directed that there should not be any delay in shifting sick person to a Nodal Medical Institution in case of any possibility of infection is seen and prison specific readiness and response plans must be developed in consultation with medical experts.

It said that ‘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 for similar circumstances.

“A monitoring team must be set up at the state level to ensure that the directives issued with regard to prison and remand homes are being complied with scrupulously,” it said.

The top court added that looking into the possible threat of transmission and fatal consequences, it is necessary that prisons must ensure maximum possible distancing among the prisoners including under trials.

The top court also noted the steps taken by various states and UTs including shifting of over 11,000 prisoners to less congested prisons in Jharkhand.

“An overview of the responses reflects that considerable measures for protection of health and welfare of the prisoners to restrict the transmission of COVID-19 have been taken by the State Governments,” the bench said.

It said these measures generally include creation of isolation wards, quarantine of new prisoners including prisoners of foreign nationality for a specific period, preliminary examination of prisoners for COVID-19, ensuring availability of medical assistance, entry points scanning of staff and other service providers, sanitisation and cleanliness exercise of prison campus and wards, supply of masks etc.

It said that significant measures have been taken by Bihar, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura, Jharkhand, Goa, Kerala, Telangana and UTs of Jammu & Kashmir and Chandigarh who have advised the prison authorities that visitors may be allowed to interact with prisoners only through video calling or telephonic call.

On March 16, the top court had taken suo motu cognisance of overcrowding of prisons across the country and said it is difficult for jail inmates to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

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