Updated: Dec 7, 2020
New Delhi: In Barrack A3, Ward 2, Jail Number 14 in the neighbourhood of Mandoli in the north-eastern part of India’s capital New Delhi, when a senior citizen suffering from fever had difficulty breathing one day this June, he was given a paracetamol despite the apparent Covid-19 symptoms.
Over a series of interviews, his fellow prisoners told Article 14 that they requested the prison’s medical officer to arrange a Covid-19 test for the senior citizen, who had been in prison for more than a decade. Their pleas went unheeded. The following day, other inmates of the barrack repeated their request, and the assistant superintendent agreed.
Three days after the swab sample was collected, the senior citizen was dead, the first to die of Covid-19 in the Tihar jail complex, a set of 16 prisons in New Delhi. The test result arrived the subsequent day: He was positive.
The death in Mandoli jail prompted prison staff to conduct tests for the remaining 30 inmates of Barrack A3. As many as 26 tested positive for the novel coronavirus. These inmates were then placed in a separate makeshift barrack in conditions that other inmates described as ‘deplorable’ and ‘degrading’.
On 20 October, the Special Bench of the Delhi High Court decided to end its blanket order extending ‘Covid bails’. These were orders for interim bail and emergency parole granted by courts and jail authorities to decongest prisons in light of the pandemic. Around 6,000 prisoners were released from various jails in Delhi through these orders for Covid bail.
Against the backdrop of the Delhi High Court ruling against blanket extensions of such bail, the prisoners’ narratives about the fears surrounding their return to prison paint a stark picture of conditions inside the jail during the pandemic.
Their accounts are of negligence and lack of preparedness, but also reveal an absence of dignity and humanity for the incarcerated, even in the face of a highly infectious and life-threatening disease.
Article 14 sent an email to the Superintendent of Jail Number 14 on 17 November, seeking responses to observations made by inmates regarding the management of Covid-19 inside the prison. There was no response.
Subsequently, Article 14 made three phone calls to the department, but these calls went unanswered. We sent an email to the director general (prisons), followed by two phone calls during office hours. There was no response. If we receive responses, we will update this story.
Living With The Virus In Overcrowded All-Convicts Prison
Twenty men who are currently serving life sentences in Jail Number 14 at Mandoli, one of the high-security jails in the Tihar prison complex, spoke at length to Article 14 over a two-month period, via video-conferencing.
During discussions on the decision of the Delhi High Court, they spoke on overcrowding in the prison and on availability of medical facilities. Inmates talked in detail about the situation inside the jail; they opened up about their emotional and mental state and that of their families. They used a range of words and expressions to indicate hopelessness, shock and fear.
Inmates from Jail Number 14 vividly remembered the horror of having to live with suspected Covid-19 patients in the same barrack. The A3 barrack, where the first death took place, had witnessed inmates repeatedly demanding and waiting for tests to be conducted. All of them believe that the apathy of the jail staff and the delay in testing the first symptomatic inmate caused the infection to spread rapidly in the jail.
“We were already stuffed inside that barrack,” said one inmate, who described himself as a close friend of the inmate who died of Covid-19 in Barrack A3. “We had nowhere to go but to live with that, so close to one another.”
Housing more inmates than the sanctioned capacity is a norm in almost all the jails of the Tihar prison complex. According to the 2019 Prison Statistics of India report, Delhi has the highest occupancy rate in the country (174.9%). In terms of overcrowding, which is defined as having more inmates than the sanctioned strength, Delhi has reported the highest overcrowding rate among the Union Territories.
Overcrowding in Indian prisons is a persistent problem. Multiple reports of committees constituted by the central government on jail reforms have recognised overcrowding as a fundamental human rights issue in prisons, leading to poor hygiene, lack of sleep and other violations of prisoners’ rights. The Supreme Court in India has also held that in order to respect the reformative ideal and human rights of prisoners, they must be provided with reasonable space and facilities inside the jail. In India, the prison population has continued to rise at an increasing rate despite the rate of crime remaining the same.
Uttar Pradesh has the highest overcrowding rate in prisons (167.9%), according to 2019 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. The major contributors to overcrowding include a larger number of arrests, frequent use of preventive detention laws, and inadequate functioning of release mechanisms including bail and review boards.
In his submissions before a committee constituted in May 2020 to decongest the prisons, the director general (prisons) said on 24 Oct that a blanket end to Covid bails and paroles will take the prison population in the capital to unprecedented numbers.
Asking all the released inmates to surrender, the DG said, would lead to having a total of 22,000 inmates inside the prison, the highest occupancy figure ever. The population of the Delhi prison complex has never crossed the 18,000 mark. Its total sanctioned strength across 16 prisons is 10,026, as per the latest Prison Statistics of India.
Inmates from Jail Number 14 described the conditions in the jail as bheed-bichham (stuffed), jaanvaron jaisa vyavhar (animalistic behaviour), and insaan bhi nahi samajhte (inhumane).
They felt the inmates who tested positive for the virus were kept in even more deplorable conditions, evoking pity and fear among other inmates.
One inmate, who started a shelter for rescued cows while out on parole, said, “They created a makeshift barrack for those who tested positive, which was literally a hall covered with tarpaulin. There was only one toilet in that barrack, which had to be used by all the patients. They (the staff) treated them (the patients) like caged animals. They refused to even talk to them or get close to them; food was pushed towards these inmates from outside the barrack. Nobody cared about what these patients wanted or thought about their conditions.”
The paradox of maintaining social distancing while living in an overcrowded prison was apparent early on in Jail Number 14 when the government and courts began to issue Covid-19 advisories. This jail has a total of 24 barracks, of which only 22 are used for housing inmates. The remaining two are used to organise meals.
As pressure began to mount on jail staff to implement the Covid-19 advisories, two of the already overcrowded 22 barracks were cleared and designated as ‘quarantine wards’ for inmates coming back from parole, and for new entrants.
In other words, in order to implement the directions mandating quarantining of newcomers and returning inmates, jail authorities actually packed inmates meant to occupy 24 barracks in 20 barracks.
“The barracks were already operating at almost 30% - 50% overcrowding. The Covid guidelines just made the situation a living hell,” one of the inmates told Article 14.
This overcrowding was further aggravated in May when multiple cases of coronavirus were reported among the undertrial inmates lodged in Rohini jail. Undertrials from Rohini who tested negative were then shifted to Jail Number 14 of Mandoli, adding to the overcrowding.
Since undertrial prisoners cannot be housed in the same barrack as convicts as per Delhi Prison Rules, two more barracks were cleared for the newly arrived undertrials. The convicts serving life sentences at Mandoli jail now had to live in only 18 barracks.
Incredibly, this tragedy continued to worsen. Even as occupancy rate in the convicts’ barracks shot up, another batch of undertrial inmates was brought in from the Rohini jail in early June, followed by yet another batch of arrivals.
By June, life in the barracks designated for convicts and for undertrials were both marred by acute overcrowding and appalling living conditions. Inmates found it difficult to even stretch a little during sleep hours; and the worsening man-toilet ratio led to further deterioration in hygiene and sanitation conditions in the barrack.
The Absurdity Of Precautions, Masks
In April, according to inmates, jail authorities at Mandoli decided to implement the precautionary measures laid down in the Covid-19 guidelines.
“After the first batch, sanitizers never arrived again. Guards used to siphon the sanitizer bottles and take them home; they were not even available in the jail canteen,” said an inmate who has served 14 years in this jail.
Apart from the one-time supply of sanitizer bottles, inmates received no other support from the jail staff to help implement protective measures. Instead, implementing the precautions ended up exacerbating living conditions. In June, the recreational hour was stopped, movement was restricted, and the inmates were forced to stay inside the overcrowded barracks for longer hours.
“There were days when they didn’t let us out at all. Even the food was brought inside the barrack, we couldn’t move out at all,” one inmate recounted.
Then there was the rule to wear face-masks inside the barracks. One inmate said, “Sir, do you wear masks inside your house? No, right? The barrack is our house, how can we wear masks there? We just couldn’t breathe properly, being stuck inside the barrack for the entire day. There was no place to even sleep properly. But we had to wear masks while sleeping, we were afraid we'd catch the virus. However, some of us just couldn’t breathe, so we took them off. During the day, no one bothered to wear a mask.”
As Blanket Extension Of Bail Ends, Prisoners Fear Death
“I was looking forward to celebrating Diwali with my family for the first time in 16 years. This order shook my conscience to the core, I just stopped eating. My family has moved from festival shopping to mourning, it’s literally like death,” said an inmate who has found it difficult to secure an early release despite consistently maintaining a record of good conduct.
As the Special Bench of the Delhi High Court decided to put an end to its blanket order on extending the ‘Covid bail’, the inmates were in shock. The prospect of surrendering and returning to an overcrowded jail in the middle of a pandemic led them to fear for their lives. Inmates recalled the trauma of the treatment meted out to them during the period that the jail was managing the outbreak. Many found it difficult to express in words the jolt to their mental and emotional state.
‘I don’t know what to say. I can’t feel anything, I just can’t. How can they do this to us? How can they ask us to go back to that situation?’ said an inmate who was kept in solitary confinement for more than five years.
For some inmates, the emergency parole granted soon after the outbreak was the first time that they spent some time with their families. During this period, one inmate founded his own information technology startup, another established a shelter for rescued cows with the help of donations received from his neighbourhood. For them and others, the period outside jail had instilled a sense of hope and they had begun to think of a meaningful life outside a prison and of supporting their families.
These hopes were shattered by the 20 October court order.
“How can they say that Covid is over? The numbers are rising on a daily basis, the situation is getting worse in Delhi; how can they send us back to the prison at this stage?” said an inmate who has not received parole for the last 10 years.
Inmates expressed their despair with phrases such as: ‘I felt the ground receding from beneath by feat’; ‘I could not feel my own body, I felt the sky crashing on my head.’
Broken family ties and the failure to provide for dependents were the major concerns of inmates facing the prospect of returning to jail. Most had also been looking forward to celebrating Diwali with their family for the first time in many years.
One of the inmates said: “How do I explain this to my young children? I can’t even face them now. My entire family has stopped eating. We were all excited about Diwali, now everyone has slipped into mourning.”
Inmates also fear the degrading treatment inside the jails. One inmate, who has lost all hopes of getting a recommendation from the Sentence Review Board for an early release, said, “They don’t even look at us as humans. How can we expect them to protect us from the virus? They are the ones who brought the virus to our jail; no inmate was allowed to go out, then how did the virus invade our jail? They brought it! They’ll do it again, they look down upon us, they don’t care about us.”
(Karan Tripathi is a lawyer and a researcher in the field of criminal justice)