On 16 March, expressed its apprehension over what may happen if COVID-19 were to affect the already overcrowded prisons and remand homes. In this regard, it had directed the relevant State Government and prison authorities to file a report with details of measures taken to contain a potential outbreak.
On 23 March, the Court took stock of the reports filed and issued certain additional directions. It noted that State Governments had already taken substantive measures. Such measures include the creation of isolation wards, quarantine of new prisoners including prisoners of foreign nationality for a specific period, a preliminary examination of prisoners for COVID-19, ensuring the availability of medical assistance, scanning of staff and other service providers at entry points, sanitisation and cleanliness exercise of prison campus and wards, the supply of masks, barring or limiting of personal visits to prisoners, suspension of cultural and other group activities, awareness and training with regard to stoppage of transmission of COVID-19 and court hearings through video conferencing, among others.
After noting the measures already taken, the Court went on to issue certain additional directions. Some of the important directions include:
The physical presence of all the undertrial prisoners before the Courts to be stopped forthwith and recourse to video conferencing to be taken for all purposes.
Transfer of prisoners from one prison to another for routine reasons not to be resorted to, except for decongestion to ensure social distancing and medical assistance to an ill prisoner.
Prison specific readiness and response plans to be developed in consultation with medical experts.
A monitoring team to be set up at the state level to ensure that the directives issued with regard to prison and remand homes are being complied with scrupulously
In order to address the issue of over-crowding, the Court directed the setting up of a High Powered Committee. Such committee shall consist of (i) Chairman of the State Legal Services Committee, (ii) the Principal Secretary (Home/Prison) by whatever designation they are known, and (ii) Director-General of Prison(s). This committee will have the discretion to decide which class of prisoners can be released on parole or an interim bail for a period of time it finds appropriate.
Although the class of prisoners who may be released was left to the Committee's discretion, it gave certain broad guidelines which shall be taken into account while taking such a decision. For instance, the nature of the offence, the number of years to which he or she has been sentenced, the severity of the offence with which he/she is charged with and is facing trial may be taken into account. Furthermore, the Undertrial Committee set up by the Court in In re Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons, (2016) 3 SCC 700 shall meet every week and take appropriate decision on the question of interim bail and parole, in consultation with the High Powered Committee.
States which have not yet filed their reports have been directed to file them within three weeks when the matter is expected to be heard again.