Supreme Court of India
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Four prisoners move SC against Maharashtra Govt for contempt of court citing failure to implement order to decongest prisons amid COVID-19

The petitioners have raised a grievance that the Maharashtra government has not acted on its declaration made on March 26, as per which they submitted that they were going to release 11,000 prisoners.

Debayan Roy

A group of prisoners lodged in jails in Maharashtra has approached the Supreme Court alleging contempt of court on the part of the State Government for not following the top Court's March 23 order to take steps for the decongestion prisons to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The petition has been moved by one convict, Dilip Shankarrao Apet, detained in Harsool Central Jain, Aurangabad and undergoing three years imprisonment, along three undertrial prisoners, Samir Govindlal, Srikanth Haribhau Joshi, and Vijay Vishwanath Mule, lodged in Osmanabad District Prison through Advocates Satish B Talekar and Atul Babasaheb Dakh.

The petitioners submit that after the Supreme Court ordered that a high powered committee should take a decision on releasing prisoners facing up to seven years's imprisonment on March 23, the State of Maharashtra formed its high powered committee on March 24.

The High Powered Committee submitted its report for the release of prisoners on March 25. Despite this, the petitioners contend that the Maharashtra government is yet to release any prisoners.

Even though the high powered committee took a decision and directed the state government to release the convicts who are undergoing imprisonment for offences punishable with imprisonment of seven years or less, the state of Maharashtra has not released a single prisoner till date by granting emergency parole,” reads the contempt petition.

On March 23, noticing that the issue of overcrowding of prisons is a matter of serious concern, particularly in the present context of the COVID-19 pandemic, a 3-judge bench of CJI SA Bobde and Justices L Nageswara Rao and Surya Kant, directed each State/Union Territory to constitute a High Powered Committee to determine which class of prisoners can be released on parole or an interim bail.

The said committee was to comprise of the Chairman of the State Legal Services Committee, the Principal Secretary (Home/Prison) and the Director General of Prison(s).

The contempt petition states that while one and half months has elapsed since the High Powered Committee directed the release of prisoners, no prisoners have been let out.

The plea points out that this goes against the Maharashtra government's March 26 had submission that 11,000 such prisoners would be released.

Now, the petitioners claim, the situation in jails amid the COVID-19 pandemic has become grave with increasing chances of inmates contracting the virus. In this regard the petitioners also submit that four prisoners have tested positive for the viral disease.

(The) Situation has become so grave that 4 persons who were transferred from Yerwada Central jail, Pune to Satara District Jail are tested positive. None of the prisons are subjected to COVID-19 tests owing to which the real risk of contagion is not being put forth,” reads the plea.

Apart from contempt action, the plea also seeks an interim direction from the Court to release Apet on emergency parole and the other petitioners on interim bail.

The petition notes that following an audit of prisons in Maharashtra, even the Controller and Auditor General of India concluded that the prisons in Maharashtra were overcrowded and that prisoners were deprived of adequate space for sleeping, contrary to applicable norms.

The petitioners have also challenged the decision of the High Powered Committee to make the March 23 order of the Supreme Court not applicable to prisoners who are accused of economic offences and offences punishable under special acts. “This decision of the committee is in defiance of the March 23 order,” says the petition.

The plea states that even Bombay High Court took cognizance of a letter written by a senior advocate on this issue. Following this, the State counsel told the court that steps were being taken to release such prisoners.

However even after the lapse of one and a half months after the decision of the High Powered committee, the state of Maharashtra has not released a single prisoner on emergency parole. It has frustrated the very purpose and objective of the March 23 order of the Supreme Court,” reads the plea.

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