Pune: On July 12, poet and activist Varavara Rao’s daughter addressed a press conference saying, “My father, Varavara Rao, an 81 years old poet, blabbered about his father’s funeral which was held 75 years ago. Whatever he talked was incoherent during the weekly call from prison to family. His co-prisoner, Vernon Gonsalves, told us that he is in no condition to walk and carry out his daily works,” The family had panicked after the call and held the press conference the next day.
Rao, accused in the Elgar Parishad case under the charges IPC 124A for sedition and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act among others, has been in jail since November 2018. His family has been trying for interim bail on ground of his health since the outbreak of COVID-19, but with no luck.
Earlier on March 23, taking suo moto cognisance of the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, the Supreme Court had issued guidelines to protect the health of prisoners that included measures to decongest prisons. The apex court had then asked the states and union territories to constitute high power committees (HPC) to decide which class of prisoners can be released on parole or interim bail for a period that is appropriate.
Maharashtra prisons statistics
The HPC of Maharashtra in its first meeting on March 24 recommended the release of under rrial prisoners charged for the offences punishable up to seven years or less on interim bail and certain categories of convicts on emergency parole. (Under trails are released on bail while convicts are released on parole.)
On March 31, 2020, Maharashtra had 36,061 inmates in all 60 prisons against their actual capacity of 24,032. Out of these, 9,169 (25%) were convicts and 26,762 (75%) were under trials. As per the prison manual, each inmate should get 40sqft space and hence for physical distancing, the barrack capacity has to be reduced to 2/3rds of the actual capacity, which meant that nearly 18,000 prisoners had to be released.
In its second meeting on May 11, the HPC decided to release all under trails having probable punishment of seven years or more but whose offences were non-serious.
List of Offences by Prisoners Excluded from Release
Following this, prison superintendents across the state have forwarded bail applications of 14,121 under trials to concerned courts after the HPC’s decision. Meanwhile, family and lawyer visits to inmates at prisons have been stopped in the wake of the pandemic. Inmates can talk to families once a week on video calls and phone calls.
By August 31, the Maharashtra government has released only 10,556 inmates following the HPC’s recommendation. Of these, 2,502 convicted have been released on parole while 8,064 under trails have been released on bail. However, 46 prisons in the state still have 26,772 inmates against their capacity of 23,217, as per the Maharashtra Prison Department with 19 prisons still being overcrowded.
Inmates with Co-morbidities Suffering Worst
The octogenarian poet Rao, who is arrested under UAPA, does not qualify for bail under the current government guidelines. N Venugopal, Rao’s nephew, told NewsClick, “The NIA Sessions Court on June 30 rejected his bail application filed on March 28 on health grounds. We again applied for bail in session’s court on May 15 and the court rejected it on June 12.”
Following pressure from media and citizens across the country, Rao was shifted to the state-run J J Hospital in Mumbai the next day and tested positive for COVID-19 on July 16. He also got hit on his head, which required two stitches. He was then shifted to Saint George Hospital for COVID-19 treatment. However, as his condition deteriorated the government had to shift him to Nanavati, a private hospital.
The family had even approached the Bombay High Court against the order of Sessions Court in the first week of July and the matter is still being heard. Venugopal added, “We got dates thrice for online hearing but court can hear hardly 30 cases a day due to shortage of staff and also limited technical facilities. We always get a next date.”
Notably, by September 6, six inmates have died of COVID-19 in prisons across state and 1,772 prisoners have tested positive out of total 11,267 tests conducted as per the Prison Department data. A total of 1,040 have recovered so far.
Rao’s is not an individual case. Sehran Khan, a 27-year-old under trial arrested under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substance (NPDS) Act has been lodged in Kalyan Jail in Mumbai since February 2019. Sehran’s medical report at the prison accessed by NewsClick said, that she has been suffering from seizures since she was 15 years old and she is on Eptoin 100 mg tablets. She also had to undergo treatment for tuberculosis for nine months three years ago and suffers from haemoptysis, i.e. vomiting blood. As per the report, Kalyan prison has been treating Sehran at J J Hospital, Mumbai for seizures and haemoptysis. She had 8-10 episodes of seizures in the jail.
“Her application to the HC to hear the matter urgently on health ground was rejected as her health reports were not filed at HC by the prison authorities. Prisons are working short of staff. As a result, the HC ordered that the matter is not urgent and cannot be heard,” Maitrayee, a social worker with Prayas, an NGO that gives free legal aid to prisoners, told NewsClick.
Sofia, Sehran’s elder sister of Sehran, who stays in Bhivandi, said that she has not seen Sehran since April as prisons have stopped personal visit due to COVID-19. A homemaker, Sofia used to take care of her two younger sisters, including Sehran and her brother. Her husband sells miscellaneous items in local trains of Mumbai.
Talking about the release of prison inmates, Suhas Chakma, who works for the National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT), said, “The decision to release under trails and convicted should be based on age, disabilities, comorbidities, sex and general health conditions. SC has taken decision to decongest prisons to protect prisoners from getting infected. But this decision of Maharashtra HPC to release under trails without serious offences does not follow what the SC means. And under trials, who are yet to be held guilty of any offences, should not be punished by exposing them to COVID-19.”
Dr Vijay Raghvan, professor at TISS and Project Director Prayas, said, “Though under trails and convicts are being released, new admissions of under trails continue. Prisons have not released 18,000 inmates as per the HPC decision. Thus, physical distancing is not possible. And those who are old or those who have co-morbidities and serious health issues would be vulnerable to getting infected.”
He added, “HC, districts and taluka courts are given freedom to decide to whom bail should be given. Though 14,121 bail applications have been forwarded, courts are the one to decide about their bails.”
Meanwhile, Shahu Darade, PRO, state Prisons Department of state, said, “Prisons are taking measures to prevent spread of COVID-19 in prisons. A total of 27 temporary centres near prisons have been created and 2,767 inmates have been shifted there.”
He added that, “New inmates are sent to isolation centres, where they are tested for COVID-19. They are sent to jails only if they test negative. We have sufficient number of doctors and medical staff to take care of inmates. Doctors from district hospitals regularly visit the prisons for check up. The inmates who have co-morbidities or are old are taken care of.”
Cases of Inmates Abandoned by Families
The problems of the accused whose families have abandoned them are even more severe. Sixty-three years old Santosh Pawar, under trail, who is currently in Yerawada Central Prison, was denied bail in May 27 by the Khed Sessions Court. Pawar, a farmer is accused for murder of his wife and has been in Yerawada since March 2017. His family has abandoned him.
Talking about Pawar’s case, Rahul Surwade, a social worker for who works for legal aid to prisoners, an organisation that provides legal aid to inmates, said, “We had applied for temporary bail following HPC guidelines at Sessions Court of Khed. But the court rejected the bail saying the charges against him are serious. His regular bail had been rejected in November 2019. We were preparing for trial that would have begun in June but got postponed due to the pandemic.”
Kanchan Bhelke, (35), accused of alleged links with Maoists and under trial at Yerawada Jail, Pune, suffers from a serious heart ailment. He had also applied for temporary bail following the HPC order. However, the Pune Sessions Court rejected her bail plea on June 1 as she had been charged under UAPA.
Rohan Nahar, her lawyer, said, “Her family does not talk to her following her arrest in September 2014. Her condition has been serious and she had to be admitted multiple times at Sassoon General Hospital last year. We applied for her bail on health grounds because if she gets infected with COVID-19, it can be dangerous for her. But the court rejected the bail saying the prison is taking good care of her health.”