At least 1,000 Taloja Jail inmates, including some Bhima Koregaon case prisoners, have COVID-like symptoms, say families; scholar Teltumbde's kin await test results

Parth MN

When Monali Raut spoke to her imprisoned brother Mahesh last week, it got her a bit worried. "He said almost half the prisoners in Taloja Central Prison have been suffering from flu, cough or cold in the past week," she said. "Mahesh himself had fever for two days, and he suffered from dysentery as well. He has never complained about his health over the past two years. This is the first time he mentioned his health in the two-minute call that we had."

Mahesh Raut, an activist based in Gadchiroli, is one of the 12 political prisoners arrested in the controversial Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad case. Arrested in 2018, Raut is booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). He is accused of plotting the assassination of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while having links with banned Maoist outfits.

The other 11 include writer Sudhir Dhawale, professor Shoma Sen, advocates Surendra Gadling, Arun Ferreira and Sudha Bharadwaj, poet Varavara Rao, activist Vernon Gonsalves, prisoners' rights activist Rona Wilson, scholar Anand Teltumbde, activist Gautam Navalakha, and the latest being professor Hany Babu.

Critics say the charges against them are politically motivated as they all have a reputation of speaking up for the deprived sections of the society. The nine men €" except Rao €" are lodged in Taloja prison in the outskirts of Mumbai. The two women are at Byculla's women's prison. The family members and lawyers have been worried about their well-being in context of the coronavirus. "Mahesh wanted to get his test done but was refused," said Monali. "We have been a bit worried since Rao tested positive. It is getting difficult with so many inmates suffering from fever."

At least two others in touch with inmates at Taloja €" requesting anonymity €" have corroborated the claim of inmates suffering from fever.

There are 2,201 inmates in Taloja as of 28 July €" more than its official capacity of 2,124, which in itself becomes fertile ground for the spread of coronavirus. If half the inmates are suffering from fever-like symptoms in Taloja, that number comes to about 1,000.

To preserve the rights of inmates and draw attention to the conditions of prisons in Maharashtra, People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) had filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court. It was dismissed on 2 July, but not before forcing the prison authorities to make some important concessions around protecting the prisoners during the pandemic.

The high court directed prison authorities to conduct random testing in jails as well, after the state rejected the demand of testing all inmates.

But with close to 1,000 inmates suffering from fever, cough and cold in Taloja, only 20 COVID-19 tests have been conducted in the prison up to 28 July. Most of those 20 tests, too, came after Rao tested positive on 16 July.

Of those 20, three have tested positive, and two of them have died,  put up by the prison authorities on its website. On 1 August, three prison staff of Taloja reportedly tested positive. Jeryl Banait, doctor-activist based in Nagpur, said random testing is science. "But if you are testing 20 people among the 1,000 showing symptoms, then it is on the lower side," he said. "Even then, the number of tests in random sampling doesn't matter as much as the percentage of positive results. If three out of 20 have tested positive, it means 300 of 2,000 are positive and that is a big number."

In Byculla Women's prison, where Bharadwaj and Sen are lodged, only one test has been conducted among the 257 inmates and that one inmate has tested positive for coronavirus.

This, in spite of the high court directives of random testing. Therefore, family members and lawyers of political prisoners fear the assurances mentioned in the high court order are not being followed diligently.

The state government had assured during the 2 July order that the prison authorities would "inform the family members and relatives of the inmates upon their transfer to the temporary jails and/or quarantine/covid centres."

When Rao was moved from Taloja to JJ Hospital in Mumbai on 13 July, his family learnt about it from the media. N Venugopal, Rao's nephew, and a poet himself, said there was no official correspondence to the family from the prison authorities. "Though it was mandatory to inform family about these developments, either government or jail, police, hospital authorities did not provide any official information to the family," he said.

Rao's family members have been writing letter after letter to the state and National Human Rights Commission, imploring for details on Rao's health condition. Their 27 July letter said they have received no information about Rao's health condition and treatment at Nanavati hospital for 12 days, and the only official communication they received was when Rao tested positive for covid19.

Two days later, the family managed to get through to him via video conferencing, where, the family said, he appeared "weak".

Once an inmate tests positive, prison authorities are supposed to trace "high-risk patients", identified as the ones who have been within three feet of the covid positive patient for 15 minutes.

Mr Kurlekar, Superintendent, Taloja Central Prison, said they identified high risk inmates, and they all tested negative. "Rao and Vernon were in the same cell," he said. "Vernon has also tested negative."

Teltumbde's family is anxiously awaiting his test results. The high court directed the state to inform the family on 1 August.

Upon being asked what precautions are being taken to protect patients above 60, Kurlekar told this reporter to speak to his superiors. Inspector General of prisons and correctional services, Maharashtra, Sunil Ramanand, told this reporter to speak to the superintendent, and didn't respond after that.

During the 2 July order, the court pointed out the state government has said that "as far as possible, a separate arrangement shall be made inside the prison itself" for inmates above 60 "so that they do not come in contact with other inmates of lower age groups".

That arrangement, in fact, could be counterproductive, for it merely segregates young from old and doesn't ensure social distancing. In other words, if one of the 60 plus inmates tests positive, it risks all the 60 plus inmates that are already vulnerable.

On 15 June, Sunil Ramanand had submitted an affidavit to the high court that said, "In order to manage COVID-19, the prisons need to be decongested to 2/3rd of its official capacity (for effective creation of quarantine wards). Hence the manageable prison population in the state of Maharashtra is 16,000. A decrease in the current prison population by almost 14,000 is needed."

At two-thirds of the capacity, Taloja should ideally have 1,416 inmates €" not 2,210 inmates, making it difficult for the prison authorities to isolate vulnerable patients. But the decongestion process has not gone anywhere in Maharashtra.

The state government had also agreed in court that all inmates above 60 would be medically examined to locate their comorbidities: "Depending on the comorbid conditions, such inmates shall be further periodically checked as per the advice of the doctor" and "any deviation from the normal parameters must be treated immediately."

But the treatment depends on the health facilities available at that point at the prison. And the family members and advocates of political prisoners are not too confident about the facilities at Taloja prison. On 12 July, Rao's family held a frantic press conference imploring the authorities to shift him out of prison hospital because since June €" for over 40 days €" his health alarmingly deteriorated but he received no treatment.

From inside the prison, Vernon had "specifically told us that there is no treatment," said Pavana, Rao's daughter.

A legal expert in touch with inmates inside Taloja said the problem with what was accepted and submitted in the high court is that everything is left up to the discretion of prison authorities. "If half the inmates are suffering from flu, we want to know what kind of a flu it is?" the person asked. "What are prison authorities doing to deal with it? There is no information coming from the Taloja prison or from the administration."

Also See: Elgar Parishad case: NIA 'strongly opposes' Sudha Bharadwaj's bail plea in Bombay HC

Varavara Rao's family demands 'transparent' health updates, medical records and permission to attend to jailed poet

Elgar Parishad case: NIA searches DU professor Hany Babu's house in Noida

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