Home / News / India /  Shortage of medical staff puts Indian prisoners at high risk of covid-19

NEW DELHI : The rise in numbers of covid-19 cases among inmates has once again exposed the long-unaddressed issue of severe shortage of medical staff, unhygienic condition and lack of covid-19 testing in Indian prisons.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recently constituted an 11-member committee to guide state authorities about how to deal with this situation.

The committee has said that decongesting prisons just by releasing inmates is not the solution and clarified that the suboptimal health environment prevalent in Indian prisons should be addressed.

Over 1,500 prisoners and prison staff have so far tested positive for covid-19 across India, government data shows.

About 1.8 million people went in and out of the 1,339 prisons in the country, according to Prison Statistics in India 2019.

Nationally, jail overcrowding stood at 117%, but this does not reflect the ground situation in specific jails. In this scenario, the shortage of medical staff poses further challenges for coping with the pandemic.

Uttarakhand had no person at the level of medical officer, while 12 states and Union territories, including Delhi, Karnataka, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh had a 50% shortfall at that level against the sanctioned number, according to India Justice Report (2019) released by Tata Trusts.

“The state has a duty of care toward its prisoners. However, prisons across India do not have the finances, equipment, or adequate attention from state governments to ensure that inmates are adequately protected from the virus. Heightened infection in prisoners and staff translates into severe risk to the population outside," said Maja Daruwala, special monitor for police and prison reform, NHRC.

The high courts of Haryana, Kerala and Rajasthan have ordered mandatory testing for covid-19, even as the Supreme Court ordered jails to be decongested.

Uttar Pradesh houses 25% of the total inmates in the country in its 71 jails and struggles to deal with overcrowding even after releasing more than 18,300 prisoners after the top court order.

“We have a capacity to lodge 60,580 inmates but generally have 100,000 to 104,000 prisoners. Due to the lockdown we had less inmates... However, after the partial relaxation in the lockdown, the number of inmates is again increasing," said Anand Kumar, director-general (prisons and reforms), Uttar Pradesh police.

In mid-July, 57 Delhi jail inmates tested positive for covid-19 and two died, while 112 prison staff contracted the contagion.

“We have enough doctors to take care of the coronavirus. We are screening all the new entrants for the disease," said Sandeep Goel, director-general of Tihar Jail.

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