BySharmeen Hakim,Shruti Ganapatye / Updated: Jun 29, 2020, 08:05 IST

Prisoners ‘dumped’ at quarantine facility: Nearly 300 Taloja jail inmates, packed into a school in KhargharPhoto by Raju ShindePrisoners and rights activists say decongestion exercise an eyewash.

We’re living like animals here.” Khyamuddin Sayyed minced no word in the letter he sent his lawyer, Amrish Salunkhe, on June 14 from his temporary prison in a Kharghar school. Sayyed returned home on June 23, after being released on interim bail in a narcotics case—but as a shadow of his former self, almost as if he was still in that prison, looking for a safe corner in a place where inmates, even those showing symptoms of Covid-19, are “dumped one upon the other”.

The letter, which Sayyed wrote on behalf of himself and six others, has called into question the earnestness behind Covid-19 protection measures for Taloja prisoners. As per the safety plan, Namdar Gopalkrishna Gokhale High School, 3 km from the jail, in Sector 12 of Kharghar was turned into a temporary quarantine facility last month for those arrested during the lockdown as well as for inmates of other prisons that were being decongested following orders by the Supreme Court and a high-powered state committee in view of the pandemic. The idea was to prevent the virus from barrelling through the already crowded Taloja prison; two of its inmates who died recently had Covid-19.

While prison authorities asserted that only 291 prisoners are placed in quarantine at the school at any given time for a 14-day period, many inmates have disputed this. They alleged that they are, in fact, being exposed to the virus there. In his letter, pleading for rescue, Sayyed said eight days after testing positive, a few asymptomatic patients were “dumped” at the school, creating panic among inmates.

‘350 crammed in 6 rooms’

The dismal conditions at the facility were also exposed by filmmaker Anand Patwardhan in a Facebook post on June 21on behalf of civil rights activist Gautam Navlakha. Navlakha and 10 others, including Telugu poet Varavara Rao and Dalit rights activist Anand Teltumbde, have been accused of making inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad conclave at Shaniwar Wada, Pune, on December 31, 2017, which allegedly triggered violence at the Bhima-Koregaon war memorial the following day. Navlakha was shifted from the Tihar jail in Delhi to Mumbai last month and placed in quarantine at the school on May 26 before being shifted to the Taloja jail.

According to Patwardhan’s post, which was a reproduction of a letter sent to him from Navlakha’s partner Sahba Husain, nearly 350 inmates have been crammed into six classrooms, and have to make do with only three toilets, seven urinals and a common bathing area without a bucket or a mug. Many of the inmates were forced to sleep in the school’s corridors and passageways, said Husain, recalling a conversation she had with Navlakha a few days ago. The post said the quarantine facility is so congested that the inmates are at high risk of catching skin infections.

Navlakha was shifted to the Taloja jail the day after the post went up, and moved to a hospital ward on the premises to address some health issues. Husain told Mirror that he was kept at the school even after this quarantine period ended. “He lost weight during his stay there and developed digestive problems.” She said his condition has now improved. Rao and Teltumbde are also in the same hospital ward owing to health concerns.

Activist Gautam Navlakha recently told his partner that many inmates were forced to sleep in the school’s corridors
The prison’s no kinder

Inmates have also alleged that the inhumane treatment has spilled over to the prison. Riyaz Furkaan Ansari, who was released two weeks ago on interim bail in an attempt-to-murder case, said there are many inmates who have fever, cough and cold at the Taloja jail but are not tested for Covid-19. “One man’s body was swollen, but he was not taken to the hospital; he was only treated at the prison. Even when I came down with a fever, they just gave me a few tablets,” said the 27-year-old, adding that till the time of his release, inmates were screened only twice for Covid-19.

The apathy is even on record. A recent report to the Bombay High Court revealed that the two Taloja prison inmates who died recently tested positive for Covid-19 only after their deaths.

Ansari said the inmates are also frustrated because of fewer case hearings during the lockdown. “Inmates of Arthur Road and Kalyan jails went on a hunger strike to protest this and were mercilessly beaten up. They were then transferred to the Taloja jail as part of the decongestion exercise, but were beaten up there as well,” he alleged.

He said the lockdown has hit prisoners the hardest. “They don’t have money to buy basic items from the canteen because the post office is shut. There is an online purchase system, but most of the inmates at the Taloja jail are extremely poor and not well versed with it. Everyone wants to die with their family members around them.”

Decongestion questioned

The deplorable conditions at the Kharghar quarantine facility and the Taloja jail are part of a bigger malaise, said 14 human rights organisations on June 25. In an open letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, they drew attention to conditions at all prisons in the state. “As we mark the 45th anniversary of the day when Emergency was imposed in the country and thousands of political dissenters were locked up in prisons, we wish to bring to your notice the deplorable and abysmal condition of jails and quarantine facilities in Maharashtra,” said the letter.

It said eight crowded prisons in the state have been “locked down”—a move that doesn’t inspire confidence in the plan to reduce the population of jails by at least two-thirds to allow for social distancing.

Inmates of Taloja jail say there are many who have fever, cough and cold but are not being tested for Covid-19
The human rights organisations said three other accused in the Elgar Parishad case—Surendra Gadling, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves— are struggling to even find space at the Taloja jail to keep a copy of their 5,000-page chargesheet. The Maharashtra Prison Manual mandates at least 3.71sqm of space for each prisoner in every sleeping barrack, they said.

Pointing out that 158 inmates of the Arthur Road jail have tested positive for Covid-19, the letter said, “It leaves little doubt that social distancing guidelines are not being taken seriously and the lives of thousands of prisoners in custody are being put at risk.”

It also questioned why prisoners were being “arbitrarily kept beyond the 14-day quarantine period” at the Kharghar quarantine facility.

Following all rules: Jail

According to data submitted before the Bombay High Court on June 19, Taloja has 2,313 inmates against its capacity of 2,124. This includes around 400 transferred from the Arthur Road jail in March and 200 from the Kalyan jail in May.

The Taloja jail’s authorities refused to comment on specific allegations, saying they would respond to the court as and when required. An official said the Indian Council of Medical Research’s guidelines on social distancing, the use of masks, maintaining better personal hygiene, isolation and regular temperature checks are being followed, and a close watch is being kept on inmates and staff with comorbidities. “We have an isolation ward inside the prison hospital. Currently, no inmate has symptoms of Covid-19.”

The official said of the two recent casualties, one inmate died by suicide while in isolation and the other succumbed soon after a visit to JJ Hospital.

Taloja jail authorities say only 291 prisoners are placed in quarantine at Namdar Gopalkrishna Gokhale High School at any given time for a 14-day period, but prisoners say the number is as high as 350

198 infected at Byculla, Arthur Road jails

Last month, 158 inmates and 39 staffers of the Arthur Road jail tested positive for Covid-19, prompting a team of seven doctors and paramedics to rush to the newly opened quarantine centre on the premises. A prison report said 98 prisoners and 37 staffers recovered as on June 13. A woman inmate of the Byculla prison— where two of the Elgar Parishad accused, Sudha Bharadwaj and Shoma Sen, as well as Sheen Bora murder case accused Indrani Mukerjea are lodged—tested positive last month. The jail, which has a capacity for 400 prisoners, currently has 325 inmates. Deepak Pandey, inspector general of prisons, said a BMC school in Byculla has been acquired to be turned into a quarantine facility for women prisoners and staff.

courtesy Mumbai Mirror