- Isha Choudhary
“The coronavirus requires a challenging balance of rights: the rights of the defendant to a speedy trial and a trial by a jury of their peers against the rights of courtroom actors and jury members to their health”
– Theodore Wilson, University of Albany’s School of Criminal Justice.
The global outbreak of the virus seems to have posed a challenge for the Indian prisons which are occupied exceeding their capacity. Subsequent to the warning issued by the WHO affirming that the prisons across the world have the potential to bring to a gigantic rise in the mortality rates due to this pandemic unless strong actions are taken towards the same, multiple petitions were filed in the High Courts of the country seeking a release of prisoners falling in certain categories. As per the 2018 Prison Statistics of India, the prisons are crowded over and above the capacity by 17.6%. The said figure holds relevance as this makes the prions a fecund area for the spread of the disease. Also, at the same time, it appears to be a caution to highlight the need for prison reforms in India.
- A glance at the SC Order
Taking into consideration all such facts and factors, the Supreme Court by an order dated 23rd march 2020 asserted that the hearings would be conducted by way of video-conferencing as a measure to restrict the human interface and further escalation and spread of the deadly virus.
In addition to this, all the states and UTs were ordered to formulate committees to deliberate upon the aspect of the release of prisoners who have been jailed up as undertrials for offences providing maximum imprisonment for seven years and also those who have been jailed for up to 7 years on parole. Furthermore, restraint has been put on the transfer of the prisoners in all cases barring those of decongestion.
In furtherance of the said order, the various state governments have been active in the release of prisoners along with abiding by the guidelines provided by the apex court in the said order. Similarly, it has been suggested in an interview with prison official of Maharashtra government that 601 inmates were released from 37 prisons of Maharashtra in a matter of 3 days succeeding the SC order.
Therefore, it has become manifest that the virus outbreak has slowed down and, to a certain extent, paralyzed the law enforcement machinery of the state.
- Challenges posed by the re-integration
In addition to this, the challenge which is posed by the re-integration of these prisoners in society has also not been dealt with. This release of prisoners in masses has brought the said issue back to light. The struggle for these prisoners does not end with their release. Due to the existence of various societal and legal barriers, it becomes comparatively difficult for them to hold a position in society and be able to secure a consistent source of earning. This, in turn, might lead to a situation where these inmates have to live a life of poverty and consequently suffer from mental health issues also.
At the same time, the employers avoid employing such people so as to prevent any additional liability which the firm may incur as a consequence of such employment which highlights the issue of purposeful discrimination at their end.
However, it is pertinent and crucial, at the same time, to note that such release comes with various devastating social effects, also. And the cost of this is not limited so as to be measured in economic terms but also extends to the compromised overall well-being of the society.
It is suggested by the 2015 Congressional Research Service Report, that, over a period of five years, on an average 76.6% of these released prisoners will return to the prison for one or the other reason. Mass incarceration is also deemed to be a contributing force or rather a worsening factor to the pre-existing social and economic neighborhoods of the society.
- Additional difficulties involved
Furthermore, the difficulty encompassing the herculean task of dealing with a huge number of cases so as to enable the release of the inmate accused have also been ignored by the court. On the very same lines, is the opinion of a prominent US public prosecutor Rob Sanders. He, while commenting upon the current crisis, opined that despite the necessity of release of prisoners from jail as a step towards curtailing the spread of Covid-19, the US is not prepared for the aftereffects of the pandemic and a lot of pressure has been put on the team for the execution of such release.
With the crisis stuck situation, the law enforcement body seems to have come to a halt. At the same time, taking regard of the need and as a measure of precaution, several steps have been taken to stop the further spread of the virus. One amongst the various measures is the decision as to the release of inmates from the prison which has been regarded as a potential hotspot for the transmission of the virus. It is seen that subsequent to the passing of the order of the Supreme Court dated 23rd march 2020, mass incarceration is the consequence.
With this, it becomes important to bring to notice the repercussion of the same on the prisoners as well as the society in which these inmates are to re-integrate. In addition, the author is of the opinion that in the course of taking all these necessary measures, the after-effects or the consequences of such release are ignored. This re-entry poses a lot of challenges not only to these released inmates, which are expected to become manifest after the end of the outbreak but also to the community.
The author further tries to bring into notice the difficulty which this step of release encapsulates. In addition to this, adopting a measure like video-conferencing for the purpose of conducting trials does not seem to be a feasible idea. The release of these prisoners and the method adopted for conducting a trial of the persons accused rather appears as a field day for these people to escape the clutches of law.
Keeping into consideration the above- discussed labyrinth of facts the author has encountered with and unearthed in the course of analysis, it is suggested that the need of the moment appears to be a set more stringent and effective guidelines to address the instant plight and adversity created by the pandemic.
The author is a 2nd Year Student of NLU, Jodhpur