The overcrowded prisons in Kashmir are turning out to be COVID epicentres with 35 fresh cases reported at the Srinagar Central jail.
Last year in August, when the Central government revoked the semi autonomous status of Kashmir after abrogating the Article 370, the number of inmates in the prison witnessed a sudden increase. The authorities have recently stepped up their operations and detained several militant sympathisers while several people have also been imprisoned for anti-India "dissent" on social networking sites.
The new 35 COVID-19 positive cases at one of the biggest prisons in Kashmir has come weeks after more than 90 inmates were found positive at the Anantnag jail. Capable of holding not more than 3,234 inmates, prisons in Jammu and Kashmir currently have 3,700 inmates. The number of prisoners remains more than double in some jails, like the Anatnag district jail, while the detainees include several hundred women as well senior citizens (above the age of 60).
Local prison officials admitted that the capacities in Kashmiri prisons were inadequate. With fresh cases, the families of detainees have expressed worries over the condition of the inmates.
Qazi Umair, brother of journalist Qazi Shibli, said that the authorities chose to detain him in the middle of the pandemic. "My brother has been taken into preventive custody. He was detained last month on the eve of Eid and is now lodged at the Srinagar central jail. He was detained first at the police lockup before he was shifted to the prison," Umair said.
Earlier, Shibli was released after being detained for nine months in a prison outside the Union Territory (UT) in the run-up to the abrogation of special status, in what his family said "was over tweets about the deployment of thousands of troops in Kashmir." His fresh detention came after he ran a story and also tweeted that the coverage of media channels accusing US-based Kashmiri architect, Tony Ashai, of being close to Pakistani establishment was "part of a larger conspiracy to vilify Kashmiris."
Human rights activist Mohammad Ehsan Untoo said that the prisoners were cramped in the Central jail. "A single barrack of few feet houses some 25 inmates," he said.
Untoo was recently released as the authorities didn't press any fresh charges against him after the tenure of his public safety act (PSA) detention expired last week. He was detained last year on 5 August as "over a thousand police and other government force personnel surrounded my house in Rajbagh and whisked me away."
"The condition of the prisoners in the Central jail is pathetic. The facility is cramped and prisoners are not provided proper medicine, food and drinking water," he said.
However, senior superintendent of Srinagar Central Jail Tej Ram Katoch said that the authorities ensureed "proper facilities at the jail and all new inmates were first being quarantined and their tests were carried out before they were taken for lodgning in the barracks."
"We lodged Qazi Shibli at the quarantine facility at the prison and he has tested negative for coronavirus," he said. Katoch added that Shibli was facing a case of "preventive detention."
On 16 July, among the 190 prisoners lodged at the Anantnag jail, around 90 tested positive. Officials said that the inmates contracted the disease during the medical screening camp at the prison. Though some inmates were shifted outside Kashmir, the jail still houses 150 prisoners against the capacity of 70 only.
"All those who tested positive for the COVID have now recovered. We had shifted them to the quarantine facility of the Kashmir University campus in Anantnag," said Syroze Ahmad Bhat, Superintendent of Anantnag jail. "We have shifted out several inmates, while we are constructing new barracks here which will add capacity for more than 100 inmates in a month," he said.
Deputy Inspector General of Prisons MS Lone said that in a month the capacity will increase to house 500-600 inmates in different prisons across Jammu and Kashmir. "We are ensuring proper medical screening so that COVID remains under check," Lone added.
Katoch said that in order to ensure that the disease doesn't spread at the Srinagar jail any further, the authorities have restricted meeting between the family members and the prisoners.
On 29 July, the authorities in Srinagar issued and order empowering the DG prisons to extend the parole of the prisoners to check the overcrowding here. Umesh Sharma, deputy secretary of the Home department, who issued the order, said that this was done on the recommendation of a panel which had "designated the class of the prisoners who could be released from the jails."
The panel that was constituted on 29 March was tasked to determine "the category/class of prisoners who may be considered for release on parole or interim bail for such period as may be thought appropriate, depending upon the nature of offence, the number of years to which he or she has been sentenced or the severity of the offence to which he or she is charged and is facing trial." However on the recommendation of the panel, the parole has been extended to those convicts who have spent more than 10 years in jail and was "subject to the good behaviour."
Advocate Zia-u-Rehman, said that "the order release the prisoners on parole excluded those detained in militancy related cases." "While some stone pelters were routinely released on bail by the Courts, the parole has not benefitted a large number of detainees charged in the militancy related cases."
Umesh said that the order to exclude the "militancy" related detainees was issued on the recommendations of the panel.
Untoo said that while his petition seeking the revocation of his detention order under the Public Safety Act (PSA) was reserved for judgment before the High Court he was released after the end of his one-year detention term. He was detained in August after being charged that his human rights campaigns were "tarnishing the image of security forces." The previous governments including the one lead by PDP-BJP alliance however acted on his petitions which were filed before the State Human Rights Commission to provide relief to the "victims" of human rights violations. The security forces in the Valley have faced a number of cases of human rights violations during the anti-militancy operations.