COVID-19 and Congested Prisons

An account of prisons as fertile breeding grounds for incubation of COVID-19 owing to severe congestion. 


Photo credit: Felipe Vallin/Pexels.

Prateem Rohanekar

Bengaluru: Emergencies have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded, F.A. Hayek once said, which could not be more true in the case of prisoners. Prisoners retain the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India including the right to life. Although limited by the fact of incarceration, prisoners also enjoy the right to live with human dignity. A prisoner remains a human being despite his imprisonment and is entitled to human rights.

Suo Motu Writ Petition (Civil) No. 1 of 2020 has brought fresh hope to prisoners in times of despair. In this case, steps were taken to ensure that the spread of coronavirus within prisons is controlled. The Supreme Court has viewed prisons as fertile breeding grounds for incubation of COVID-19 owing to the fact that the prisons are overcrowded. The court directed the states and Union Territories to constitute High Power Committees to determine the class of prisoners who could be released on parole or on interim bail. [1]

Congestion and the Indian Correctional System:
Among the 1,350 correctional facilities in India, there are 144 central jails, 410 district jails, 617 sub-jails, and 31 all-women jails. The rest are Borstal School, Open Jails, and Special Jails.  

Jails in India (Source: NCRB)

The 1350 correctional facilities are capable of accommodating 4,04,274 inmates, and in fact accommodate 4,82,946. Amongst others, the district and central jails are the most congested ones, with 42,583 and 47,231 inmates beyond their capacity. Correctional facilities in India can accommodate up to 3,79,557 male inmates, and are occupying 4,62,654 male inmates; and while the capacity for female inmates across the jails is 27,717, 20,292 inmates are currently in jails. The general picture across all types of jails is that congestion woes mostly seem to affect only the male inmates, while female inmates live in comparatively better conditions.

Female occupancy in prison (Source: NCRB)  

Male occupancy in prisons. (Source: NCRB)

Need for decongestion
The 72 correctional facilities in Uttar Pradesh have an occupancy rate of 167.9 per cent, the highest among all states. It is followed by Uttarakhand with 159 per cent, Meghalaya with 157.4 per cent, Madhya Pradesh with 155.3 per cent, and Sikkim with 153.8 per cent. Uttar Pradesh remains the most congested in terms of male occupancy with an occupancy rate of 170.2 per cent, however, Uttarakhand has the most congested facilities in terms of female occupancy rate of 170.1 per cent.

Occupancy in various States (Source: NCRB)

Steps taken
Correctional facilities in Maharashtra have the capacity to accommodate 24,095 inmates in all, however, in 2019 it accommodated 36,798 inmates. That means they were overcrowded with an additional 12,703 inmates as on December 31st, 2019.

Pursuant to the Supreme Court order of March 23rd, 2020, the High Powered Committee (HPC) was set up in Maharashtra on March 24th, 2020. The Maharashtra HPC took a decision on May 25th, 2020 to release the undertrial prisoners who committed crimes involving less than seven years of imprisonment. The next day the Home Minister of the State in his press release declared that the State would release 11,000 prisoners across Maharashtra. [2]

This move by the State will barely bring the occupancy rate down to 111.2 per cent if the rate must be calculated using last year’s figures. This begs the question, whether enough is being done in Maharashtra to address the spread of COVID-19 owing to congestion in its prisons?


[1] COVID19: Ten most significant decisions of the Supreme Court of India, CJP (2020), (last visited Nov 22, 2020).
[2] Covid-19 and Prisoners Rights in Maharashtra — HRLN, (last visited Nov 23, 2020).  

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