In view of the second wave of Covid19, a coalition of 27 civil society organisations, lawyers, scholars, and journalists have written to the Chief Justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court demanding urgent decongestion of the state's prisons.
The letter is signed by 10 human rights organisations and 17 eminent academicians, lawyers, and writers, including Advocate Apar Gupta, Advocate Gautam Bhatia, Advocate Arvind Narrain, Professor Mrinal Satish, Professor Pratiksha Baxi, Professor Noam Chomsky, and Professor Kalpana Kannabiran. Alternative Law Forum (ALF), Article 24 Trust, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), and Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project (CJAP) are examples of those organisations.
The signatories expressed concern in the letter that high overcrowding has jeopardised prisoners' right to life and wellbeing during the accelerated detention process. The virus emerged in the second phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is noted that Madhya Pradesh's prisons have a capacity of 28,000-29,000 people, but as of March 31, 2021, they kept 49,763 people in total and 32,263 undertrials, with overcrowding at an all-time high of 174 percent. 115 of MP's 131 prisons are overcrowded, including seven jails seeing occupancy rates of more than 300 percent. The undertrial population is almost two-thirds of the total inmate population.
According to the letter, the surge in jail population is mostly attributable to indiscriminate arrests by police, often for small offences, and insufficient recourse to parole due to the courts' limited operation during the pandemic.
The letter demands that the Chief Justice of the High Court take immediate action to issue bail, extend emergency parole, and ensure the operation of the Undertrial Review Committees in accordance with the Standard Operating Procedure drafted by NALSA.
It is stated that the following defendants should be given immediate bail:
- all convicted people in judicial detention for offences punishable by 7 years or less
- all undertrials above the age of 45;
- all undertrial mothers, including pregnant women and women with children; and gender minorities
- inmates with comorbidities that are at risk of contracting COVID, as well as other seriously ill inmates;
- inmates with disabilities, including long-term physical, emotional, intellectual, or sensory disabilities, as specified by the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPwD) Act of 2016.
The letter further mentions groups of convicts whose emergency parole is expanded to cover all convicts under the age of 45, pregnant mothers, children's women, gender minorities, comorbidity convicts and disabled convicts, as specified in the laws in question.
Such requests are universal and ongoing prison vaccination testing, issuing of prison vaccination orders according to the WHO guidelines, increasing prison budgets to improve health infrastructure, public information on positive infections, prison testing and vaccination to ensure accountability and prompt imprisonment reporting of above instructions.
The letter further emphasises the necessity of long-term steps to ensure that even in regular conditions the inmate populations remain stable.
In 2020, the High Court of Madhya Pradesh has submitted a plea for decongestion (WP No. 8391/2020), which is still pending.
A number of guidelines for decongestion of prisons had been passed by the High Court on 7 May. The Court ordered the highly competent comissions of States, interalia, to free all inmates awarded emergency parole during the pandemic last year.