With Kerala battling a second wave of coronavirus infections, the prisons department in the state is now mulling to release as many inmates as possible to prevent the disease from spreading in their correctional facilities.
As many as 400 prisoners and 20-odd jail staffers have already tested coronavirus positive in two prisons — Central Jail (Poojappura, Thiruvananthapuram) and District Jail (Kollam) — in Kerala. The prisoners found infected were all asymptomatic, according to authorities.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, 1,800 prisoners have been released from various jails in the state. Currently, the total number of inmates in Kerala jails stands at 4,500.
“We have been thinking of multiple steps to release as many inmates as possible. Granting bail to those booked for offences carrying seven years jail term or less is one such proposal,” Santhosh, DIG of Prisons, Prison headquarters, Thiruvananthapuram, told The Federal.
The jail authorities ideally want to release all above 65 years, either on parole or bail, but the high court may not agree to such a blanket request without considering the gravity of the crime committed by the inmates.
“We got legal advice to create such categories as under trials, who do not have antecedents of more than one case, and those having comorbidities and old age ailments, etc.,” said DIG Santhosh.
The jail authorities are in the process of collecting information on the prisoners eligible to be released.
In Poojappura Central Jail, 362 inmates tested positive till August 16. A 72-year-old prisoner, found infected, passed away. A few staffers, including a medical officer, also tested positive.
“The Poojappura Central Jail is overcrowded now and we’ve to take steps for decongestion. Granting parole to the convicted prisoners is the discretion of the government, but bail (for the under trials) has to be granted by the courts,” said the DIG.
In the District Jail at Kollam, 66 inmates and 14 staffers had tested positive. There are 141 inmates in the District Jail and more tests are being conducted.
According to authorities, no one tested positive from the other two central jails in Thrissur and Kannur so far. “Those jails are not overcrowded. We have a lesser number of inmates than the actual capacity in all jails except the one in Poojappura,” said Santhosh.
The jail at Poojappura has 950 inmates as compared to its capacity of 750, and the authorities had failed at tracing the root of the virus spread in the correctional facility.
“On an average, we have to take 10 to 14 inmates to hospital every day for various reasons. We guess some of them might have got infected from the hospital,” said DIG Santhosh.
He said the inmates are very keen on maintaining safety protocols such as using masks and sanitisers, and also ensuring social distancing. He also claimed the vulnerable inmates were given special care since the pandemic outbreak in March.
“A closed community like jail always has the risk of an outbreak despite all precautions,” said Santhosh.
As per rule, parole could be granted only up to 30 days at a stretch. However, the idea is to give a 15-30 days extension at the end of the parole. In an executive order issued on August 14, the home department had extended parole for all the prisoners released so far.
According to the order, 265 prisoners released before the outbreak were given extension till September 30. Another batch of 589 inmates received extension till October 18, and a third batch of 192 have been directed to return before November 3. However, the jail authorities have no idea how long this would go on.
“It is quite uncertain. The government has the discretionary powers to extend parole as long as it wants,” said the DIG of Prisons.
Bail is the rule and jail is the exception — the legal principle laid down by the Supreme Court finds utmost relevance during these pandemic times.