Prisons have always been one of the most vulnerable areas when there is an outbreak of an epidemic. There are several reasons that may be attributed to the same. With over-occupancy in the correctional homes along with dilapidated health infrastructure and shortage of medical personnel, preventing the outbreak of COVID 19 inside jails has been a top concern for the prison authorities. With overcrowding in India over 14% with some states like Uttar Pradesh and Delhi touching 65% and 51% respectively, the poor medical infrastructure further has added up to the problem. Perennial problems like lack of proper nutritious food as per the Jail Manual and deteriorating conditions for women and children in prisons further add to the problem.
“We are talking about a highly vulnerable population in overcrowded conditions and once Covid-19 gets inside prisons, everyone will be contaminated very quickly,”
Carina Ferreira-Borges, WHO’s coordinator for prison health
Past studies in this regard conducted by Studio Nilima: Collaborative Network for Research and Capacity Building in jails of Assam report that five prisons reported one nurse/ one pharmacist/ one compounder, twelve prisons with only one pharmacist and three prisons with no such appointments. While the lack of permanent doctors remains a common policy concern, records accessed by Right to Information, 2005 shows one Central Jail in the state reported availability of “only first aid facilities” and at least two District Jails reported that there were no medical facilities and doctors in the jail hospital. While the diet plan for inmates is prepared in lines with the Assam Jail Manual, it was found that the plan is not protein-rich which is an essential ingredient for a strong immune system which is the need in these times. Although Model Prison Manual, 2016 adopted by the Supreme Court had provided with a revamped diet chart, Assam, like many other states, is yet to implement it.
On 23rd March 2020, the World Health Organisation published interim guidance on how to deal with COVID 19 in prisons and other places of detention entitled “Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention” It provides useful information to staff and healthcare workers working in prisons on ways to prevent its outbreak and ensure personal safety in such a volatile environment. A crucial aspect of this report is that it recognises the concerns for the safety of not just the healthcare workers in prisons but the custodial staff and transport services for whom it recommends Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). While PPE is a long demand by medical fraternity across the country, the less talked about medical personnel in correctional homes still struggles with basic requirements to ensure their safety as well as collective safety of all inmates and jail workers.
WHO health experts have been urging prison administrators in countries to plan for coronavirus. Just One Film/Getty Images
It is further interesting to note how the Supreme Court of India took up a suo moto case wherein it held by an order dated 23/03/2020 for setting up of a High Powered Committee comprising Chairman of State Legal Services Authorities, Principal Secretary (Home/Political) and Director General of Prisons to determine the class of prisoners who can be released on bail or parole for whatever duration it may deem fit. While the focus of the committee shall be to determine the class of prisoners fit for parole and bail in these times, a crucial aspect missed out in this process is the improvement of medical infrastructure of the jails. This shall also serve as a long term investment in improving the conditions of the prisons.
In Assam, what is peculiar about the correctional homes is the presence of Declared Foreign Nationals in six prisons, most of them in the middle of their competition of sentences or almost at the end, the committee must decide on their release along with the other inmates of the certain category deemed to be allowed by the committee.
Lastly, it must be acknowledged that the provision of healthcare facilities in prisons, remands and detention centres is a State responsibility, heighten at this crucial hour. It must be ensured that the inmates receive the same standards of health care that are available outside, and the human rights of those inside custody are respected.
This is part 1 of the COVID-19 perspective series.