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Explained: Freeing prisoners in emergency.

Following an outbreak of novel coronavirus infections in Mumbai Central Jail, better known as Arthur Road jail, the Maharashtra government issued a circular that effectively facilitates the release of half the prisoners lodged in the state’s jails, on temporary bail and emergency parole. Until Thursday, around 7,000 of a targeted 17,000-plus prisoners had been released.

What led to the move?

Over the last several days, 184 persons (158 inmates and 26 staff) were found infected in Arthur Road Jail, besides a 54-year old woman inmate at Byculla Jail. While Tuesday’s circular came after this, the government’s moves to release prisoners had, in fact, preceded the outbreak.

In March, the Supreme Court had directed decongesting of prisons and observed that the “bitter truth is that our prisons are overcrowded, making it difficult for the prisoners to maintain social distancing”. With many Maharashtra jails severely overcrowded, housing prisoners four to five times their capacities, the state government became the first to take a move in that direction.

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On March 25, a high-powered committee recommended release of undertrials charged with offences punishable up to seven years. It also directed release of convicts on emergency parole with a few conditions. On March 28, officials of the District Legal Services Authority began facilitating release of undertrials. Then on May 8 (following the outbreak in the jail), the state government amended the Maharashtra Prisons (Mumbai Furlough and Parole) Rules, and issued a notification enabling the release of certain categories of convicts.

How many will be released, and how many have been so far?

According to a report by the Prisons Department submitted on Monday, 5,105 prisoners had already been released as a result of the decisions on March 25 and May 8, another 3,017 were in the process of being released, and a further 9,520 would be released as a result of Tuesday’s order. The total of 17,642 represents nearly half the 35,239 prisoners lodged in the state’s 60 jails before the lockdown.

By Thursday, the number already released was up to 7,000 — 5,200 on temporary bail and 1,800 on emergency parole.

Tuesday’s order was for the release of all undertrials, relaxing the earlier category of those facing up to seven years imprisonment, but with exceptions including those charged with murder, rape, kidnapping, bank frauds, major financial scams, money-laundering, anti-terror laws, child sexual abuse as well as all foreign nationals. It also said inmates who reside outside the state can be released only after the lockdown period is over and public transportation is available.

The release is temporary. Initially, both bail and parole is valid only for 45 days, or till the application of Epidemic Diseases Act from the state is revoked, whichever is earlier. The 45-day period would later be extended in blocks of 30 days each. But eventually, the prisoners are supposed to be back in the barracks.

Why is the release taking time?

While the decision has been taken by the government and the prisoners have been identified, the process of obtaining bail or parole has to be followed as earlier. The bail order has to be issued by a relevant court, while parole has to be sanctioned by authorised jail officer.

“Even though the decision to release them has been taken, the prisoners have to send bail applications to the designated courts. Selection of eligible prisoners, verification of their records and completion of all formalities takes time. The superintendent of a jail is authorised to grant parole, and there too there is a process to be followed, some paperwork to be done,” said a senior officer in the Prisons Department.

The process of release faced another hurdle. It was begun at a time when lockdown restrictions were the most severe. Prisoners released had no means to reach various destinations, and a few non-profit organisations came forward to help in some districts like Latur. Some prisoners were found loitering on the streets.

In Pune, a released prisoner was murdered by a group of people; old enmity is suspected. In Mumbai, a released woman inmate could not reach her home in Palghar, and was given shelter by a woman jailer for a night before another inmate, newly released, offered to take her home with her.

How crowded are Maharashtra’s jails?

Before the lockdown, the state’s jails were accommodating 50% over their capacity. This is much higher than the national average occupancy in central prisons, which on an average house 13 prisoners against a capacity of 10.

The Maharashtra Prison Department’s report said the capacity in state jails is 23,547 while there were 35,239 prisoners before the lockdown. It warned against an outbreak in other prisons if they are not decongested.

Before the release began, Arthur Road jail was packed to more than four times its capacity — 3,718 prisoners in place of 804. In Pune’s Yerwada Jail, 5,717 prisoners are housed, when its capacity is 2,449. The other important jails in the state, Thane Central Jail, Kalyan District Jail, and Byculla, all are similarly crowded, a majority of them undertrials.

“These cramped and crowded jails — mostly British-era central prisons in Maharashtra — are a ticking time bomb for the spread of infectious diseases. The barracks are very crowded, so are spaces of eating and cleaning,” said the Prisons Department officer.

Have there been coronavirus infections in prisons in other states?

States including Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi have recorded Covid-19 cases in their prisons. Following the Supreme Court order, most states have constituted a high-powered committee and come up with their respective categories of prisoners eligible for release.

According to data collated by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, most states have made similar exceptions against the release of inmates charged with offences including murder, rape, terror, drug trafficking, child sexual abuse. While the Supreme Court had said the categories for release should be determined but not be limited to the nature of offence, duration of sentence, and previous criminal record, most states have adhered to these and granted release only to those facing charges that involve punishment up to seven years in jail.

Haryana and Odisha have directed the release of all prisoners above age 65 on a temporary basis, with exceptions. Goa has directed undertrial review committees, set up in each district as per a previous Supreme Court order, to undertake the responsibility of releasing undertrials.

Committees across the country can recommend release of 14 categories of prisoners, including women and those with severe illnesses.

Source: The Indian Express

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