A committee looking into the issue of overcrowding in prisons may release certain people in jail for petty crimes

Sharmeen Hakim and Yogesh [email protected]

The Maharashtra government on Tuesday formed a high power committee to look into the issue of overcrowding in 25 of the 60 prisons across the state, following directions by the Supreme Court. The committee comprises Chairman of the Human Rights Commission MA Sayeed, Additional Chief Secretary (Prisons) Shree Kant Singh and Director General (Prisons) SN Pandey.

Highly placed sources told Mirror that the committee is likely to recommend the release of several prisoners, both convicts and under-trials, for a period of three months in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

While the final criteria for the release of prisoners will be decided by the committee, the Supreme Court on Monday had suggested release of people who are in jail for offences where the punishment is up to seven years or less and those who have been given lesser than the maximum punishment prescribed. An official said prisons across the state have a capacity of 24,000 inmates but currently there are 37,000 inmates in custody.

Officials from Arthur Road jail said that they have already drawn up a list of 600-700 under-trials who can be conditionally released. “These are people who are in prison, facing trials for offences of voluntarily causing hurt or forgery,” the official said on condition of anonymity. Bursting at the seams, the jail has already transferred over 500 prisoners out of 3,800 inmates to Taloja prison.

According to the affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the state government, represented by advocates Rahul Chitnis and Sachin Patil, is already taking several measures to control over-crowding.

State measures

Meanwhile, the Taloja prison, which gets new prisoners before they are transferred to other prisons, has personnel equipped with thermal scanners and quarantine facilities. Instructions have been given to all workers to maintain cleanliness and provide face masks to all the prisoners, who will also undergo medical examination before being taken in. Prisoners won’t be allowed to meet their families and lawyers as well until March 31.

Potential problems

As per the affidavit, all the prison superintendents have been instructed to contact the courts concerned and request for hearings and production of prisoners through video-conferencing. However, these days the session courts function only for a few hours twice a week. This will impact the release process as convicts and undertrials need to be released differently. While the former can be discharged by the state on parole, the under-trials need to be released by a court order. Also, the video-con line hasn’t been functioning ever since the circular came out. The Registrar General of the Bombay HC could not be reached on Tuesday to ascertain if the problem still persists.

Advocate Qudrat Sheikh said he had four cases in different courts last week, but none of the inmates were produced via video conferencing. He asked rhetorically, “If we can’t meet the prisoners in prison then how are they supposed to communicate at all?”