11,000 prisoners to be released in Maharashtra amid COVID-19 prevention measures

Sadaf Modak, Mohamed Thaver
Anil deshmuk, maharashtra home minister, maharashtra jails, maharashtra prisoners, coronavirus, coronavirus outbreak, indian express news

These parameters were laid down after a meeting of the high-powered committee set up by the state government following the Supreme Court's order on Monday. (File)

Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh on Thursday evening announced that as part of COVID -19 prevention measures, the prison department will release 11000 prisoners - forming one-third of the 36000 prison population - from across over 50 state prisons in the next few days.

Deshmukh said that those being released would include inmates behind bars for offences with punishment up to seven years. A senior jail official said that while a major chunk of those being released would be undertrials, convicts who have in the past been granted parole and furlough will also be eligible for the emergency parole. However, convicts who are serving sentence for serious offences like terror, major economic offences will not be eligible for the same.

These parameters were laid down after a meeting of the high powered committee set up by the state government following the Supreme Court's order on Monday to decongest prisons in the wake of spread of coronavirus. The parameters are likely to reduce the total number of inmates eventually eligible for emergency parole, from the number announced by the home minister.

An IPS officer said that it has been decided that inmates will be released, first for 45 days, which will be extended for another 30 days if the Epidemic Act continues to remain in force. " This will be done after bringing in a notification citing the Epidemic Act that is currently enforced in the state. Once the Act is withdrawn, the inmates will be expected back in the prison. The technical formalities will begin on Friday and later the inmates will be produced before their respective courts, which will then grant them bail. The procedure should take a week's time," the officer explained.

Prisons in Maharashtra, specifically in cities, like Pune's Yerwada central prison and Mumbai's Arthur Road jail, have seen overcrowding to the extent of four times their capacity. Measures to decongest prisons suggested earlier included granting bail to those undertrials who have been booked for offences with maximum punishment of up to seven years.

The convicts, who will be considered eligible for emergency parole, will be those who have adhered strictly to the parole and furlough conditions levied on them in the past. While furlough is the annual leave that prisoners are eligible to for 14 days a year, on medical grounds, for work, or for the prisoner to keep in touch the outside world and family, parole is a privilege that can be granted to a prisoner in case of an emergency, such as the death of a family member, to attend an important function, for a serious medical condition etc.

The steps towards decongesting prisons were already initiated this week by various metropolitan courts across the state following the Supreme Court order on Monday. In Mumbai, over 100 undertrials have been directed to be released from Tuesday, following court orders for their release on personal bond. These orders, taken suo motu by metropolitan courts in the city, including those in Dadar, Borivali, Bandra, will lead to the release of those undertrials in jails, booked for non-serious offences, where the imprisonment is less than seven years. Similar orders for release of undertrials have also been passed by courts in other districts, including Raigad and Solapur, the numbers, however, expected to be over 300, have not been collated so far.

The Mumbai city District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) through its secretary Yatin Game had this week forwarded the order of the Supreme Court directing steps for decongestion of prisons to metropolitan courts and railway courts in the city, following which each court came up with a list of cases where the undertrials, facing a maximum punishment of seven years, are languishing behind bars. Usually, courts grant bail with conditions including payment of cash or furnishing of a surety, which are procedures which may take time till the person is released. Many undertrials from socio-economically impoverished backgrounds continue to remain in jail due to non-compliance of these conditions.

The orders were subsequently forwarded to the superintendents of Arthur Road jail, Thane and Taloja jail, where the undertrials are lodged, directing them to complete the procedures of taking a personal bond from them and releasing them. “We have received such orders from the courts and have released prisoners accordingly,” said an official from Taloja jail. With restrictions in place on public transport, including shutdown of trains and buses, the official said that while so far they have not received any request for travel arrangements by an undertrial being released, the State Transport authority will be written to, in case the need arises for a prisoner to travel home outside the district.

The high powered committee, constituted in the state based on the SC order, comprising of the chairman of the State Legal Services Committee, the principal secretary (prisons) and director general of prisons, held its meeting on Wednesday to decide on these parameters.