By Special Correspondent
New Delhi/Mumbai: Drawing the attention towards inhuman and deplorable conditions in Maharashtra jails, over 14 leading human rights groups including PUCL,PUDR, Rihai Manch and Amnesty International on Thursday urged the Maharashtra Coalition government led by Shiv Sena to give emergency parole to political undertrials ,Gautam Navlakha and Sudha Bhardwaj and others arrested in Bhihma Koregaon case. In an open letter to the Chief Minister, they sought his urgent intervention in the matter as bail is being denied even to medically vulnerable prisoners such as 81-year old Varvara Rao who has multiple health issues due to old age.
They asked the state government some immediate measures including not opposing interim bail or emergency parole for undertrials or convicts who are above 60 years of age and medically vulnerable, irrespective of the offences they are booked under.
Highlighting the experiences of persons incarcerated for their political beliefs, they urged the state government to ensure regular and effective contact – by phone and videoconferencing until physical meetings commence – between inmates and their families and lawyers.
“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 the prisons, we wish to bring to your notice the deplorable and abysmal condition of jails and quarantine facilities in Maharashtra” the letter stated.
The conditions were recently flagged by Gautam Navlakha, a political prisoner accused under the infamous Bhima Koregaon case. Of those accused in this case, nine including Gautam Navlakha and Varvara Rao have been lodged in Taloja Central Prison in Navi Mumbai and two women political prisoners have been lodged at Byculla jail.
On 20 June 2020, Gautam Navlakha conveyed telephonically to his partner about his incarceration experience at a quarantine facility in Mumbai. He informed that there were approximately 350 inmates housed in the Namdar Gopal Krishna Gokhale High School in Khargar (Raigad District) quarantine facility.
While majority of the inmates had been crammed into six classrooms, people had also been sleeping in the corridors and passages.
“ What is worse is that for 350 persons, there were only 3 toilets, 7 urinals and one bathing facility without either a bucket or mug. The inmates also had no access to fresh air, as they were mostly locked in, with no place demarcated for them to walk or engage in physical exercise.”
The letter points out that, “This stands in contravention to the Maharashtra Jail Manual which provides for atleast one toilet seat for every six prisoners and thorough ventilation among other things.”
It alleges that ‘The shocking state of affairs reflects how the quarantine facility is itself turning into a breeding ground for the spread of the virus amongst prisoners, which is exactly what the facility was supposed to be a safeguard against, and it defeats the objective of decongestion of prisons.’
Consequently, the decision of the government to declare 36 locations as temporary prisons or quarantine centres under section 7 of the Prisons Act, 1894, instead of releasing inmates is worrying.
The constitutional mandate of the prison authorities to ensure the safe custody of all prisoners is being blatantly violated. Additionally, with rules and notifications about these centres not being available in the public domain, and with no regular communication facilities, these temporary jails have become a blackhole where undertrials are being detained indefinitely.
It also became known that persons at this facility at Raigad are being arbitrarily kept beyond the 14-day quarantine period, since Taloja Central jail is unable to accommodate new prisoners.
The jail has reportedly already exceeded its capacity by 1,000 prisoners. Eight overcrowded prisons in the State have had to be “locked down”.
This does not even remotely indicate the Maharashtra High Powered Committee’s resolve to reduce the jail population by atleast two-thirds in order to implement social distancing norms.
Three of the accused under the Bhima Koregaon case – Surendra Gadling, Arun Fereirra and Vernon Gonsalves have been struggling to find space just to keep a copy of their 5000-page chargesheet.
The Maharashtra Prison Manual, even ordinarily mandates atleast 3.71 square metres of space for each prisoner in every sleeping barrack. It has now been reported that 158 persons have been found positive in Arthur road jail itself. It leaves little doubt that social distancing guidelines are not being taken seriously and lives of thousands of prisoners in custody are being put at risk.
As per the response filed by the Additional Director General of Police and the Inspector General of Prisons and Correctional Services Maharashtra in the matter PUCL v State of Maharashtra being heard by the High Court of Bombay, four inmates have died in Taloja, Dhule and Yerwada prisons after contracting Covid-19.
One of the two inmates from Taloja who died was diabetic. 277 prisoners in this jail have been reported to be suffering from serious illnesses, the highest among all jails. Persons suffering from co-morbidities are known to be more vulnerable against Covid-19. Yet an interim bail plea of 81-year old Varvara Rao lodged at Taloja, who is suffering from multiple ailments was rejected in March end. His present bail plea before the NIA court has been delayed on account of the late submission of medical report by jail authorities.
Similarly, Sudha Bhardwaj’s interim bail plea citing her vulnerability on account of diabetes and heart condition along with a history of pulmonary tuberculosis was also rejected end of May.
The jail authorities, who first prevented Sudha’s daughter from speaking to her for more than a month, opposed her bail by stating that her condition was “stable”.
In the case of 67-year old Gautam Navlakha, the letter reveals, though his lawyer was informed by jail authorities that he has been tested for Covid-19 and reported negative, but he later revealed to his family that he was never even tested!
While hearing the petition by PUCL and others on 16 June, the Bombay High Court after looking at the report submitted by the Inspector General Prisons had remarked on the sorry state of affairs in jails in Maharashtra. The letter also demands that social distancing norms be implemented strictly in accordance with World Health Organisations (WHO) guidelines to avoid further spread of disease inside prisons and all quarantine facilities.
The letter endorsed by organizations having a long standing in the field of prisoners’ rights are Alternative Law Forum, Bengaluru, Association for Democratic Rights, Punjab, Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, West Bengal, Civil Liberties Committee, Andhra Pradesh,Civil Liberties Committee, Telangana, Human Rights Defenders Alert, India, Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, Jammu and Kashmir, National Alliance for People’s Movement, India, Union for Democratic Rights, Delhi Prisons Forum, Rihai Manch, South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, Delhi and Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression, India.