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Coronavirus: Consider bail for all undertrials facing up to 7 years in jail to decongest prisons, Supreme Court to states

"...the State/Union Territory could consider the release of prisoners who have been convicted or are undertrial for offences for which prescribed punishment is up to 7 years or less", the Court opined

Shruti Mahajan

The Supreme Court today asked all states to consider releasing prisoners facing sentences of up to seven years in order to decongest prisons in light of Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The Bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde directed the states to form a high-powered committee comprising the Principal Secretary of the Home Department, the Chairman of the State Legal Services Authority, and the Director General of Prisons to consider various steps for de-congesting the prisons.

Notably, this committee is in charge of determining which class of prisoners can be released on parole or an interim bail for such period as may be thought appropriate.

The Court clarified that, is "open for the High Powered Committee to determine the category of prisoners who should be released...depending upon the nature of offence, the number of years to which he or she has been sentenced or the severity of the offence with which he/she is charged with and is facing trial or any other relevant factor, which the Committee may consider appropriate."

The Bench added,

"For instance, the State/Union Territory could consider the release of prisoners who have been convicted or are undertrial for offences for which prescribed punishment is up to 7 years or less, with or without fine and the prisoner has been convicted for a lesser number of years than the maximum."
Supreme Court

The Court has also issued general directions to the States and Union Territories to ensure maximum possible distancing among the prisoners including undertrials to minimise the risk of viral transmission. As highlighted in the order,

"The issue of overcrowding of prisons is a matter of serious concern particularly in the present context of the pandemic of Corona Virus (COVID–19) … Having regard to the provisions of Article 21 of the Constitution of India, it has become imperative to ensure that the spread of the Corona Virus within the prisons is controlled."
Supreme Court

The Court has added that the physical presence of undertrial prisoners before courts "must be stopped forthwith and recourse to video conferencing must be taken for all purposes."

Moreover, the Bench has directed that to prisoners should be transferred to other prisons during this time, except for decongestions of prisons and to ensure social distancing or for medical treatment. Further, that, "there should not be any delay in shifting sick person to a Nodal Medical Institution in case of any possibility of infection is seen."

It was also emphasised that the prisoner authorities must be ready with response plans developed in consultation with medical experts. A monitoring team at the State level is also to be set up to ensure that any directives issued in this regard are scrupulously followed.

In the previous hearing on the issue, the Court had observed that the overcrowding in prisons across the country posed a risk during the ongoing health crisis. It said that while the Government of India has issued an advisory for maintaining social distance, the prisons in our country remain to be overcrowded.

Today, the Court thus directed the states to form the high powered committee to consider steps for de-congesting prisons and to consider which class of prisoners - convicts and undertrials - can be released on parole or interim bail.

The Court had earlier issued show cause notices to prison authorities and heads of social welfare departments of all states and union territories to show why directions should not be issued for dealing with the present health crisis arising out of the COVID-19.

The Court had sought suggestions from all states for measures that can be taken to prevent possible spread of the COVID-19 among prisoners as well as juveniles lodged at remand homes.

[Read the order]

In re Contagion of COVIC 19 Virus in Prisons.pdf
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