Mumbai: As Tihar Jail, the country’s largest prison, announced plans on March 23, 2020, to release on parole or interim bail some 3,000 inmates who are not “hardened criminals”, other prisons in the country may follow, having been directed by the Supreme Court (SC) to determine which categories of prisoners could be temporarily released to control the spread of COVID-19.

On March 16, 2020, the SC noted “a high risk of transmission of COVID-19 to prison inmates”, with prisoners, prison staff, families of prisoners and lawyers entering and leaving jails frequently, directing states and UTs to submit written replies on steps being taken to prevent the spread of the pandemic among prisoners and juveniles. On March 23, 2020, it suggested that prisoners convicted of or charged with offences involving jail terms of seven years or less could be considered for parole or interim bail.

The same day, the Delhi government told the Delhi High Court in response to a public interest litigation that it would amend rules to enable prisoners who had served a year of their sentence and undertrials who had been in jail for three months to avail of parole or furlough, in cases of specific offences.

Maharashtra, meanwhile, has proposed to similarly release over 5,000 inmates, while making COVID-19 tests mandatory for all new inmates. Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail, which houses 3,700 inmates against the capacity of less than 1,000, has set up 20 isolation cells for prisoners with COVID-19 symptoms.

This unprecedented release of large numbers of prisoners may amount to passing on the burden to society, experts told IndiaSpend, adding that India’s prison system should use this rare focus on the inequities of prison life to effect long-term changes.

Coronavirus making prison life fraught

Twenty prisoners in Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat Jail have been quarantined for showing symptoms of COVID-19, The Times of India reported on March 24, 2020.

The global pandemic, which has claimed 10 lives and infected at least 536 in India (as of 8 p.m. on March 24, 2020), poses a grave challenge to India’s prisons that house more than 450,000 prisoners. This is 17.6% more than their authorised capacity, according to the Prison Statistics of India (PSI) 2018 released by the National Crime Records Bureau.

Prison overcrowding is especially severe in some individual states and union territories (UTs), especially Uttar Pradesh, where the number of prisoners exceeds jail capacity by 76.5%. Tihar Jail houses 12,106 prisoners against a capacity of 5,200, as on December 31, 2019.

Twelve states had occupancy rates below 100%, including Punjab (95.7%), Bihar (93.3%), Assam (93.2%), Rajasthan (92%), Odisha (86.1%), Andhra Pradesh (79.5%), Telangana (77.1%), Manipur (72.3%), Goa (69.7%), Tamil Nadu (60%), Tripura (47.9%) and Nagaland (30.5%).

In addition, “the sanitation facilities in prisons are horrible”, R K Saxena, retired inspector general of prisons, Rajasthan, told IndiaSpend. The PSI report revealed that 1,559 prisoners died of illnesses in 2018, including heart, lung, liver and kidney-related ailments as well as tuberculosis and cancer, and that 4% of total prison expenditure is on medical needs.

India ranks fifth in terms of prison population after the US, China, Brazil and Russia, according to the World Prison Brief, a database on prison systems.

Prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Iran, China, Italy and France, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative said in a March 23, 2020, release.

Iran has temporarily released 85,000 inmates in a move to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Business Insider reported on March 17, 2020.

In the US, counties in California have released inmates fearing a spread of the virus, with Los Angeles county reducing inmate numbers by 6% over three weeks, the Los Angeles Times reported on March 20, 2020. Likewise, 1,000 prisoners would be released from jails in New Jersey, The New York Times reported on March 23, 2020.

In India, COVID-19 anxieties also provoked violence in prisons on the weekend--clashes broke out between inmates and police at the Dum Dum Central Correctional Home in Kolkata after families were barred from meeting inmates until March 31, 2020, in adherence with the social distancing rules being implemented across prisons, The Hindu reported.

Lack of trained doctors, illness-related deaths

“Most of the doctors are under-trained--medical officers need specific training to work in prisons,” Saxena said. He added that there were resident doctors in central prisons but not in sub-jails located outside cities, citing the example of Rajasthan. “Such jails need to have visiting doctors who will respond at the first request,” he said.

There are 1,914 medical personnel posted in Indian jails against the sanctioned strength of 3,220 at the end of 2018, indicating over 40% shortage, PSI data show. Jails in India have one medical personnel for 243 inmates. Jharkhand fares worse with 1,375 inmates per medical staff, followed by West Bengal (923) and Uttar Pradesh (737).

Of the total expenditure (Rs 1,776 crore) on prison inmates in 2018-19, 4% or Rs 76 crore was spent on medical needs, while Rs 891 crore or 50% was spent on food. Clothing and welfare activities accounted for 1.4% each. “Others” which “may include expenses incurred on sanitation, hygiene, the transport facilities for movement of prisoners during remand, trials, transfers and hospital”, accounted for 42% (Rs 751 crore) of the total expenditure on inmates.

Delhi reported the highest medical expenditure of Rs 17.8 crore or 23% during 2018-19, followed by West Bengal (Rs 12.6 crore or 16%) and Uttar Pradesh (Rs 10 crore or 13%).

Passing the buck to society?

“The worry shown by the judiciary towards prison inmates should be on an everyday basis and not only when an emergency arises,” Saxena said, adding that he was happy the pandemic has put the spotlight on problems in the prison system.

However, he was sceptical about the release of prisoners: “This is shifting responsibility from the prison system to society.” He said the focus should be on preventing the spread of the disease within the prisons and addressing long-term challenges such as a “biased” bail system and long delays in courts.

In their responses to the SC, several states said they had implemented measures in prisons to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These included the setting up of isolation wards, the quarantining of new prisoners including foreign nationals, the screening of prisoners, staff and service providers, the supply of masks, the limiting or prohibition of visitors, and the suspension of cultural and group activities.

Kerala prisons began to take precautions well in advance, as the state had many students returning from China, Santosh Kumar, Deputy Inspector General of Prisons in the state, told IndiaSpend. “Prison officials have educated inmates about the virus and asked them to be conscious and cautious about their surroundings,” he said. Prisoners have also been making cotton masks for the anti-COVID-19 drive, having made some 80,000 so far, in addition to 3,000 litres of hand sanitiser and soap.

In their responses to the apex court, Rajasthan and Jharkhand said they had tried to decongest prisons by transferring prisoners to other, less congested prisons. Punjab said it was identifying places in and around prisons that could be used as temporary prisons in case of an outbreak.

Haryana has asked prison authorities to come up with a block-wise time-table relating to food and other services for prevention of overcrowding. Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Maharashtra and Ladakh have identified vulnerable groups of prisoners--such as aged prisoners with respiratory diseases--for special attention.

Gujarat, Manipur, Meghalaya, Odisha, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman & Diu, National Capital Territory of Delhi and Puducherry did not file their responses, the SC noted. Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir responded with regard to the measures taken for prisons but did not submit a response regarding steps taken for juveniles in remand homes.

“Prisoners should be made aware of the disease, its risks and preventive measures,” Sugandha Shankar, Senior Programme Officer, Prison Reforms Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, told IndiaSpend while speaking of the COVID-19 pandemic. She stressed the importance of prisoners being made aware of the risks involved in meeting visitors, especially since Indian prisons lack glass partitions. Prisoners and family members should be advised to avoid pressing close to wire mesh partitions when they meet, she suggested.

(Mallapur is a senior analyst with IndiaSpend. With inputs from Nidhi Jacob, an intern with IndiaSpend.)

We welcome feedback. Please write to We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.