• The Law Gazette

Pandemic and the Plight of Prisoners

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones. ” - Nelson Mandela

In India, prisoners are exposed to such living conditions that are alarming to human standards. Over the years the constant exposure to inhumane and unhygienic treatments have had serious health as well as psychological implications to the prisoners and the pandemic has just added a cherry on the top. It has busted out its real and grave implications over the life of the prisoners.


When a person is imprisoned he eventually loses his many of the fundamental rights, however, the right to life remains universal. The overcrowding of prisons and egregious oversight of the treatment meted out to the prisoners is not only unjust but also puts our society to shame. During this pandemic, more than 60-70,000 Indian prisoners have been released as an emergency response to Covid-19. But that figure makes little or no difference when in an actual capacity of 4,03,739 prisoners, 4,78,600 prisoners were reported with 118 percent occupancy rate and 18.54 percent overcrowding rate by the end of 2019. [i]

In such overcrowding and understaffed surroundings, how will one be able to maintain social distancing where they are kept in herds and worse, treated like one too? Some might come of the opinion that they are prisoners and that they deserve this kind of treatment, however, a gentle reminder not all in prisons are hard and cruel criminals. Around 3, 30,487 of total are under trial prisoners. And the total number also is composed of women and old convicts, some with serious health issues. However, proper treatment of prisoners is not subject to their vulnerability. At the end, they still have their right to life which is being infringed every day with increasing speed.


The Right to Life under Article 21 is equally available to those who have been convicted of any offense. Even though, one is deprived of his other rights, he is still entitled to the rights guaranteed under Article 21. In the case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration[ii], the petitioner who was sentenced to death on charges of murder and robbery was held in solitary confinement since the date of his conviction. The petitioner then filed a PIL against his conviction, it was held by the court that the conviction of a person for a crime does not reduce him to non-person who is vulnerable to a major punishment imposed by the jail authorities without observance of due procedural safeguards, and therefore such treatment is violative of Article 21.

In the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar, [iii], the Court adopted a dynamic and constructive role with regard to prison reforms. The Court decided that prisoners should receive free legal aid and fast hearings and the Court specifically stressed on the improvements required for the conditions of the prisons in India.


Before bringing up the disastrous reality of implications of covid -19 over the prisoners, we must also know that over-crowding and unhygienic surroundings is not only the struggle faced by the prisoners. They are just the ones leading the line. In the Central Prison in Palayamkottai, Tamil Nadu, prison officials for over a decade have been segregating prisoners according to their castes. Housing the Thevars, Nadars, and Dalits in different blocks in the prison complex. According to former inmates, despite warnings by senior prison officials, the wardens would refer to the prisoners by their caste identities.[iv]

The easy bail out system of rich class and struggle of the poor facing police brutality comes out as no shocker to us. Poor sanitations and water facilities as well as poor menstrual hygiene puts forward huge obstacles in the survival of women prisoners. Patriarchy in India is not only limited to outer society but follows them inside to the prisons as well, wherein multiple cases are reported of physical and sexual abuses on daily basis. Children of under trial women prisoners are kept with them to a certain age, but the question is – Do we really have proper nutrition and living facilities as well as a healthy mental living environment for them?


Around 1500 prisoners and staff have so far tested positive for Covid-19. On daily basis around thousands of people walk in and out of prisons. Even though due to pandemic, number of people were released, however, large number of people have also been confined for violating lockdown Rules. Therefore, this bail exception has not really made a considerable difference into the lives and conditions of the prisoners.

The overcrowding and lack of medical staff has worsened the things up. Along with jails being overcapacity at 118% occupancy, all of them feature visitors and lawyers entering the premises with high frequency. Many times prisons are not hygienic, owing to space constraints and other factors, like lack of provision of basic sanitation and healthcare. Given these, they have a high propensity of becoming centres of community outbreak, which exactly should be our concern. The growing speed of Covid-19 among prisoners will not only remain inside but hit the entire nation.

Even Maja Daruwala, special monitor for police and prison reform NHRC had mention that the State has a duty of care towards its prisoners. However, prisons across India do not have 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 outside. [v]


In the landmark judgement of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar, Justice P.N. Bhagwati quoted Leeman Abbot, “the rich can enjoy law as a doubtful luxury” and observed that, “The poor in their contact with the legal system have always been on the wrong side of the law.”

The condition and living standards of the prisoners have been deteriorating over the years. The rich in general do have the privilege of receiving either an easy escape or a better treatment. However, the law which is there to treat everyone equal often becomes unjust to the poor. Lack of medical staff and rapid growth in covid-19 cases inside prisons, is an alarm to the society to fix its prisons and protect the life and liberty of the prisoners. This outbreak will eventually affect each one of us. This time has also brought out the real living conditions of the prisoners for the world to see how humans are subjected to such egregious living conditions. We must understand what India needs right now is good implementation of its laws, there are so many good laws to protect the rights of prisoners however the problem is its bad implementation.

Human Rights are already on the verge of becoming a plague in India. It is the time where in the Government and people come together to fix the situation. Prisons should be treated as rehabilitation centre and not as a place which fills their life with agony and trauma. As a suggestive measure Firstly, In order to reform the conditions our foremost priority should be establishment of more prisons to avoid overcrowding. Secondly, it is observed that poverty stricken class is more prone to committing the crimes as they are often left with no options to make their ends meet and therefore, prisons should act as a reforming centre for them with proper vocational training so that they can restart their life once again rather than being stuck in the constant loop of traumatization.

At the end, we must understand that right to life of prisoners are equally important as right to life of any other citizen and its protection is a huge responsibility lying on all of us. As students of law and firm believer of human rights, we conclude in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

ENDNOTES: [i] Prison Statistics of India, 2019, National Crime Bureau Ministry of Home Affairs. [ii] AIR 1978 SC 1675 [iii] AIR 1979 SC 1377 [iv] Shanmughasundaram J , Inmates Segregated on Caste Basis in Tamil Nadu : Ex-prisoner, Times of India, 25/09/18. [v] Neetu Chandra Sharma, Shortage of Medical Staff puts Indian prisoners at high risk of covid-19, LiveMint, July 20,2020. ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This blog has been authored by Rashi Singh & Suyash Singh, both 4th Year B.A., LL.B. students at CMR University, School of Legal Studies, Bangalore.