Nitin Wayachal self-quarantines after his driver is found to be among the 103 people at the jail who tested positive for Covid-19

Somendranath Sharma and David Delima

The superintendent of Arthur Road jail, Nitin Wayachal, has self-quarantined after the driver of his official vehicle tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday. The driver is one of 103 people – 77 inmates and 26 staffers – at the jail who have tested positive for the disease. An official said he is undergoing treatment at a hospital and that Wayachal’s deputy will be in charge of the jail during the quarantine period.

A source in the prisons department told Mirror that the swab samples of 200 inmates and 76 staffers had been sent to JJ Hospital and Thyrocare over the past few days. Inspector general of police, prisons, Deepak Pandey said that on Friday afternoon, all 77 inmates who tested positive were shifted to a quarantine centre in Mahul, near Chembur, under adequate police protection.Offline Mode

However, activist Bilal Khan from Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao Andolan, who has led a movement to rehabilitate project-affected-people who were shifted to Mahul in 2017, objected to the decision to shift the patients there. “A place that has been proven to give healthy people lung and kidney disorders is definitely not a safe place for those suffering from a respiratory disease. This decision is likely to put them in harm’s way. It shows how little thought civic officials have put into making arrangements for coronavirus patients,” he said. He added that there were several vacant and unused buildings that could be a more suitable alternative.

According to a source at Arthur Road prison, the first case of Covid-19 came to light when a man who had been there since last April, over a murder case, suffered a mild paralytic attack on May 2. He was referred to JJ Hospital and the next day his swab sample was tested for Covid-19. On May 4, his test came back positive. The next day, a team of doctors from JJ Hospital visited the jail and collected the 276 swab samples.

The source added that the inmate probably contracted the virus from a man who works at the jail’s kitchen, which is close to the barrack where he was lodged, before spreading it to other inmates. The kitchen worker is among those who tested positive, but is asymptomatic. A prison official told Mirror that no one has yet been tested at Thane, Taloja and Kalyan jails.

There are currently 2,600 inmates at Arthur Road jail. About 400 were shifted from the overcrowded jail to Taloja jail a month ago, and on the directions of the high court, around 700 people in jail for less serious offences were released on interim bail.

No word from officials, say worried families of inmates

Meanwhile, families of prisoners and undertrials in jails across the city made frantic calls to their lawyers on Friday morning, after hearing the news that 103 people lodged at Arthur Road jail had tested positive for Covid-19. The families of those serving sentences or remanded in judicial custody have been unable to meet them since the lockdown began more than 40 days ago.

“I have not spoken to my father properly since February, when I last saw him in court. I don’t know if he is safe as there has been zero communication from the authorities. We have no way of getting in touch with any official,” said Sagar Gonsalves, son of incarcerated activist Vernon Gonsalves. He added that some undertrials, including his father, were occasionally allowed to talk to their families over the phone, but only for two minutes at a time. This, combined with mobile network issues, meant that little communication was possible. Lawyer and activist Sudha Bharadwaj’s daughter told Mirror that she had not spoken to her mother for three months.

Advocate Ayaz Khan told Mirror that he was receiving several calls a day but did not know what to tell the relatives as there is no record of who all have been infected and quarantined. “One of my clients has relatives in Punjab who are extremely worried about his health. Another undertrial I represent, who suffers from paralysis due to brain complications, has now tested positive for the coronavirus,” Khan added.

The health of another client, he said, has been deteriorating since his tooth implants came off last October, as he has been unable to eat properly. But now, his health is failing rapidly. “His wife told me that JJ Hospital was supposed to conduct an MRI scan last October but could not as he has metal implants,” he added.

Meanwhile, the lawyer of a man recently released on bail said his client painted a grim picture of the goings-on at Arthur Road jail. Advocate Parth Sanghrajka said his client, who was released on bail on May 6, told him that prisoners there were not being told about the seriousness of the situation, and how to stay safe. “My client told me that conditions inside the prison are worsening by the day. He was sent to jail in February and was unaware of the seriousness of the pandemic. No information was passed on to inmates on how to stay safe. Instead, they were left to piece together information from newly admitted inmates.” Sanghrajka added that according to his client, inmates who developed fevers were initially given only paracetamol tablets, and that their requests for masks and hand sanitizer were dismissed. “He also said that they were made to share soap while bathing and that the barracks were not being cleaned regularly,” he said.

Sanghrajka added that social distancing was almost impossible in the crowded jail, which houses 2,545 inmates, well over its capacity of 800. “There needs to be an urgent intervention to prevent the immediate spread of this pandemic inside prisons or it won’t be long before all inmates contract the coronavirus,” he said.

Mirror tried to contact Director General (Prisons) SN Pandey but he remained unreachable for comment.