In a move to decongest prisons in Maharashtra, especially after the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Arthur Road jail that has infected at least 184 prisoners and 26 jail officials, a high power committee on Monday decided to release 50% of the total 35,239 inmates across the State prisons. The committee consists of Justice A.A. Sayed of the Bombay High Court, along with Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Sanjay Chahande and Director-General of Prisons S.N. Pandey.
Mr. Chahande told The Hindu that prisoners would be released in due course of time. He said legislation such as the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, the Maharashtra Protection of Interest of Depositors, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and others were exempted from being considered.
Also read: Decongest jails temporarily: PUDR
The order, a copy of which is with The Hindu, however, does not state the time frame within which the prisoners will be released, and neither does it reveal the category of prisoners who will be released.
Contrary to decision
The move is contrary to the March 25 decision of the committee where it had decided to release 11,000 prisoners. Since March 25, more than 5,000 prisoners having minor or moderate charges against them have been released.
But this was not sufficient as courts were not granting bail to many accused, and the virus outbreak at Arthur Road jail had seen unrest within its premises with inmates protesting for their release, particularly because the jail, with a capacity to hold just 800 prisoners, was overpopulated with 2,700 prisoners, and the jail authorities had expressed their inability to handle an outbreak as early as March 2020.
The Superintendent of Arthur Road prison, in a letter to the courts, had categorically stated that it would be impossible to maintain social distancing in the jail considering it had 2,700 inmates. Despite the letter, the court has not only refused bail to prisoners having serious ailments, but also refused bail to a person infected with COVID-19.
Even as the committee decided to release 50% inmates on Monday, it rejected a petition filed by advocate S.B. Talekar to release prisoners charged or convicted under the Special Acts such as MCOCA, PMLA, MPID, NDPS and UAPA.
“In any event, the prisoners charged/convicted under the Special Acts including the MPID Act cannot claim to be released from prison as of right. It is required to be noted that the offences under the MPID Act are against a large number of victims who are mostly poor depositors, and whose interests are required to be safeguarded and recoveries made from properties,” said the order.
The committee said, “It is true that so far as MPID Act is concerned, there are no restrictive provisions for grant of bail. However, it would be necessary to look at the facts on case to case basis by a judicial mind before releasing such prisoners, who are generally known to be more resourceful, after considering the likelihood of them absconding and/or tampering with evidence or witnesses and/or blocking the recoveries to be made from the properties and in a given case it would be necessary to secure.”
The committee, however, clarified that ‘it would always be open to such prisoners to apply for regular bail which would be decided in accordance with law’.