Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray. Image Courtesy: DNA India
New Delhi: Marking the 45th year of the Emergency in India on June, civil rights groups have written an open letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, drawing his attention to the “deplorable and abysmal condition of jails and quarantine facilities in Maharashtra”, especially in the light of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, where several political activists are incarcerated.
Referring to the “appalling” conditions in overcrowded jails in the state, where 11 activists accused in the Bhima Koregaon case (most of them above 60 years old) have been lodged, the letter, written by groups including Amnesty International, Alternative Law Forum, Rihai Manch, Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, People’s Union for Democratic Rights, among others, have demanded that undertrials or convicts aged above 60 be given interim bail or emergency parole.
Amid reports of two deceased inmates being found COVID positive, the letter also called for strict implementation of World Health Organisations on “social distancing”.
“Regular and effective contact – by phone and videoconferencing until physical meetings commence – be ensured between inmates and their families and lawyers,” the letter requested the CM.
Read the full letter below:
The Hon’ble Chief Minister
25 June 2020
Subject: Urgent action needed towards inhuman conditions in Maharashtra jails
As we mark the 45th anniversary of the day when emergency was imposed in the country and thousands of political dissenters were locked up in the prisons, we wish to bring to your notice the deplorable and abysmal condition of jails and quarantine facilities in Maharashtra. The conditions were recently flagged by Gautam Navlakha, a political prisoner accused under the infamous Bhima Koregaon case. Of those accused in this case, nine including Gautam Navlakha and Varavara Rao have been lodged in Taloja Central Prison in Navi Mumbai and two women political prisoners have been lodged at Byculla jail.
On 20 June 2020, Gautam Navlakha conveyed telephonically to his partner about his incarceration experience at a quarantine facility in Mumbai. He informed that there were approximately 350 inmates housed in the Namdar Gopal Krishna Gokhale High School in Khargar (Raigad District) quarantine facility. While majority of the inmates had been crammed into six classrooms, people had also been sleeping in the corridors and passages. What is worse is that for 350 persons, there were only 3 toilets, 7 urinals and one bathing facility without either a bucket or mug. The inmates also had no access to fresh air, as they were mostly locked in, with no place demarcated for them to walk or engage in physical exercise. This stands in contravention to the Maharashtra Jail Manual which provides for atleast one toilet seat for every six prisoners and thorough ventilation among other things.
The shocking state of affairs reflects how the quarantine facility is itself turning into a breeding ground for the spread of the virus amongst prisoners, which is exactly what the facility was supposed to be a safeguard against, and it defeats the objective of decongestion of prisons. Consequently, the decision of the government to declare 36 locations as temporary prisons or quarantine centres under section 7 of the Prisons Act, 1894, instead of releasing inmates is worrying. The constitutional mandate of the prison authorities to ensure the safe custody of all prisoners is being blatantly violated. Additionally, with rules and notifications about these centres not being available in the public domain, and with no regular communication facilities, these temporary jails have become a blackhole where undertrials are being detained indefinitely.
It also became known that persons at this facility at Raigad are being arbitrarily kept beyond the 14-day quarantine period, since Taloja Central jail is unable to accommodate new prisoners. The jail has reportedly already exceeded its capacity by 1,000 prisoners. Eight overcrowded prisons in the State have had to be “locked down”. This does not even remotely indicate the Maharashtra High Powered Committee’s resolve to reduce the jail population by atleast two-thirds in order to implement social distancing norms. Three of the accused under the Bhima Koregaon case – Surendra Gadling, Arun Fereirra and Vernon Gonsalves have been struggling to find space just to keep a copy of their 5000-page chargesheet. The Maharashtra Prison Manual, even ordinarily mandates atleast 3.71 square metres of space for each prisoner in every sleeping barrack. It has now been reported that 158 persons have been found positive in Arthur road jail itself. It leaves little doubt that social distancing guidelines are not being taken seriously and lives of thousands of prisoners in custody are being put at risk.
As per the response filed by the Additional Director General of Police and the Inspector General of Prisons and Correctional Services Maharashtra in the matter PUCL v State of Maharashtra (PIL No. 5/2020) being heard by the High Court of Bombay, four inmates have died in Taloja, Dhule and Yerwada prisons after contracting Covid-19. One of the two inmates from Taloja who died was diabetic. 277 prisoners in this jail have been reported to be suffering from serious illnesses, the highest among all jails. Persons suffering from co-morbidities are known to be more vulnerable against Covid-19. Yet an interim bail plea of 81-year old Varvara Rao lodged at Taloja, who is suffering from multiple ailments was rejected in March end. His present bail plea before the NIA court has been delayed on account of the late submission of medical report by jail authorities.
Similarly, Sudha Bhardwaj’s interim bail plea citing her vulnerability on account of diabetes and heart condition along with a history of pulmonary tuberculosis was also rejected end of May. The jail authorities, who first prevented Sudha’s daughter from speaking to her for more than a month, opposed her bail by stating that her condition was “stable”.
In the case of 67-year old Gautam Navlakha, though his lawyer was informed by jail authorities that he has been tested for Covid-19 and reported negative, but he later revealed to his family that he was never even tested! It is beyond comprehension why undertrial prisoners, who have been incarcerated solely for their inconvenient political views, are being punished with a virtual death sentence.
While hearing the petition by PUCL and others on 16 June, the Bombay High Court after looking at the report submitted by the Inspector General Prisons had remarked on the sorry state of affairs in jails in Maharashtra. The conditions being reported are a source of grave and urgent concern, and pose an imminent threat – of disease and death – to the undertrials under State custody.
To this end, we request you to kindly ensure that the following measures be immediately executed:
The request for interim bail or emergency parole may not be opposed for undertrials or convicts who are above 60 years of age and medically vulnerable, irrespective of the offences they are booked under.
Social distancing norms be implemented strictly in accordance with World Health Organisations (WHO) guidelines to avoid further spread of disease inside prisons and all quarantine facilities.
Regular and effective contact – by phone and videoconferencing until physical meetings commence – be ensured between inmates and their families and lawyers.
Alternative Law Forum, Bengaluru
Amnesty International, India
Association for Democratic Rights, Punjab
Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, West Bengal
Civil Liberties Committee, Andhra Pradesh
Civil Liberties Committee, Telangana
Human Rights Defenders Alert, India
Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, Jammu and Kashmir
National Alliance for People’s Movement, India
People’s Union for Democratic Rights, Delhi
Prisons Forum, Karnataka
Rihai Manch, Uttar Pradesh
South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, Delhi
Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression, India