In the order, a bench of the apex court suggested that the undertrials awaiting trial for offences entailing maximum sentence of seven years can also be extended a similar benefit and the undertrial review committee should meet every week. (Representational Image)
More than 11,000 inmates -- both undertrials and convicts -- who are incarcerated for lesser and non-heinous offences in prisons across Maharashtra, are likely to be released either on provisional bail or parole, as per the recommendations of a high-powered committee, to reduce overcrowding in jails amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.
The high-powered committee was formed on March 24, following an order by the apex court, and has given its recommendations to the state government. Based on these recommendations, the government is expected to issue a notification, following which the process of release of prisoners is expected to start at the beginning of next week.
To prevent the spread of coronavirus in overcrowded prisons, the Maharashtra Prisons department had proposed granting provisional bails to undertrials who are currently incarcerated for offences below a certain level of seriousness. The department had also announced a series of other steps, including setting up isolation wards in some jails and suspension of visits by relatives and lawyers, and holding court hearings via video-conferencing in prisons.
Prior to that, a special bench of Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and Justice L Nageswara Rao had observed that overcrowding in prisons in the country posed a risk during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. The apex court had observed that the advisory of the government on maintaining social distance would be difficult to follow in overcrowded prisons. The Supreme Court had subsequently issued notices to prison authorities of states and union territories, asking why directions should not be issued to them for dealing with the present health crisis arising out of COVID-19.
On behalf of the state of Maharashtra, Additional Director General, (Prisons and Correctional Services), Sunil Ramanand had filed an affidavit on the notice on March 20.
In its ruling on the issue on March 23, the Supreme Court had stated, “We direct that each State/Union Territory shall constitute a High Powered Committee comprising of Chairman of the State Legal Services Committee, the Principal Secretary (Home or Prisons) by whatever designation is known and Director General of Prisons, to determine which class of prisoners can be released on parole or an interim bail for such period as may be thought appropriate... It is made clear that we leave it open for the High Powered Committee to determine the category of prisoners who should be released as aforesaid, depending upon the nature of offence, the number of years to which he or she has been sentenced or the severity of the offence with which he/she is charged with and is facing trial or any other relevant factor, which the Committee may consider appropriate."
Speaking to The Indian Express, Ramanand said, "The HPC has submitted its recommendations. Some basic guidelines have been laid down. The inmates who are undertrials or convicts in offences of less seriousness, and offences which are not heinous, will be granted provisional bail or parole. The minute details, mechanisms, conditions and procedures by which the prisoners will be released have been given in the recommendations. The approximate number of inmates that may be released comes to around 11,000. The number can vary based on local circumstances."
According to the latest figures as on February 29, the 60 prisons in Maharashtra have an inmate population of nearly 36,700, as against the sanctioned strength of 24,030, leading to overcrowding of around 52 percent. Of these, the nine high-security central prisons have total population of 25,866 as against the sanctioned strength of 14,491, an overcrowding of 78 per cent. British-era prisons like Yerawada in Pune (133 per cent), Arthur Road (362 per cent) in Mumbai and Thane Central jail (265 per cent) are the worst affected by the overcrowding.
On Thursday night, Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh tweeted, “I've asked for releasing nearly 11,000 convicts/undertrials imprisoned for offences with prescribed punishment up to 7 yrs or less on emergency parole/furlough to reduce overcrowding in prisons and contain the risk of a #COVID19 outbreak.