The Bombay High Court on Thursday directed Maharashtra prison authorities to follow all guidelines of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to contain the spread of COVID-19 in jails across the state and to ensure safety of all inmates currently lodged there.
A bench led by Chief Justice Dipankar Datta disposed of a bunch of petitions seeking medical safeguards for jail inmates after the state submitted a list of its draft guidelines on their safety and on implementing norms of the state and ICMR on COVID-19 testing, treatment and other safeguards in prisons across Maharashtra.
The bench accepted the state government's assurances. It, however, directed the government to conduct immediate test of any inmate who showed symptoms for COVID-19.
The bench also directed the state to conduct random testing and screening of inmates for coronavirus.
The court asked the state to upload on the latter's website regular updates on the number of inmates who test positive for coronavirus, details of its quarantine centres, COVID care centres and temporary prisons that it has requisitioned for inmates. It also asked the state to decongest jail to ensure social distancing.
The court's judgement came on a bunch of Public Interest Litigations filed by the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), and other individual petitioners.
The pleas, filed through senior counsel Mihir Desai and some others, sought that the state be directed to ensure safety of all prisoners currently lodged in the Arthur Road Jail, and also prisons across Maharashtra, in the wake of news that several inmates and jail staff had tested positive for coronavirus.
Last month, during a previous hearing, the state government submitted that it was unable to conduct adequate testing and ensure quarantining and social distancing in prisons due to overcrowding.
It had told the high court that it made applications for releasing 14,400 inmates currently lodged in various prisons across Maharashtra to free up prison space and follow social distancing to check the spread of COVID-19.
The court then remarked that the state's submissions presented a "very sorry state of affairs" in the prisons.
Following the court's observation, Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni last week submitted a list of draft guidelines that the state proposed to implement for prison inmates.
These included increased testing, updating relatives about the health status of prisoners who tested positive for coronavirus, and implementing all ICMR guidelines on quarantine and testing for COVID-19.
The guidelines also provide for regular screening of inmates with co-morbidities and those above 60 years of age.
Mr Kumbhakoni told the court that the state had requisitioned 36 schools, halls and such properties across 27 districts to convert them into temporary jails, makeshift quarantine centers, and COVID-19 care centres.
On Thursday,the bench directed the state to notify details of these 36 properties on its website and to deploy additional manpower at these centres to ensure all health safeguards could be implemented.