A file photo of one of the gates of the Tihar Jail. Photo: Reuters.
New Delhi: Lackadaisical adherence to standard measures intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19 has led to more members of Delhi jail staff getting infected with it than prisoners, a report by IndiaSpend has found.
The report by Preety Acharya, who analysed infection numbers in Delhi’s Tihar, Mandoli and Rohini prison complexes, reported that by August 30, jail staff members made up 175 out of 240 confirmed cases, or 72.9%.
And while cases among jail inmates rose by 22.6%, those among employees rose 108.3% in the 58 days leading up to August 30.
The report also compared these figures to the situation in Maharashtra, where more than thrice as many prisoners as jail employees had tested positive by August 18.
Delhi prisons’ case count spike, of 75.18%, from the beginning of July to the end of August, took place in spite of an “intensive standard operating procedure” put in place from April, much before the first person in a Delhi prison tested positive – on May 12.
IndiaSpend quoted Sunil Gupta, former legal advisor for Tihar jail, blame the anomaly in Delhi to the staff’s residential quarters.
The report finds that most of those who tested positive were junior level officers involved in frisking visitors, cooking, cleaning and other duties, which could have exposed them to outsiders as well as inmates. An anonymous jail officer also noted that such ‘high-risk’ employees were not required to isolate themselves but that they routinely went home, mingling freely with several people.
Many of these employees live in the Tihar jail’s new multi-storey residential complex, which could have heightened their exposure to neighbours.
Inside the jails, special cells were created to quarantine employees, although the number of cases still grew by 22% among prisoners from July to August. Notwithstanding the relative ease of containment presented by the closed architecture, overcrowding in the jails posed a sizeable problem.
On March 16, a Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde had taken suo motu cognisance of the situation and recommended the urgent release of prisoners within a week to ease overcrowding, following the COVID-19 outbreak.
On March 23, the apex court also asked all states to create high-powered committees headed by high court judges to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside jail premises.
However, according to IndiaSpend, the data indicates that whatever decongestion drives happened didn’t suffice to mitigate the problem, leave alone prevent it. “There are 16 jails in the three prison complexes with a combined capacity of 10,026 prisoners but they actually house around 13,061 [as of now],” Sandeep Goel, the director general of Tihar prisons, told IndiaSpend. Before the decongestion drive, there had been 17,500 prisoners in Delhi’s jails, about 75% more than the maximum capacity.
In the meantime, measures have been taken to attempt to reduce the number of infections in jails.
“We made it compulsory for anybody living in the prison residential area to go into quarantine in case of any ILI [influenza-like illness] symptoms. These staff members were not allowed to enter the jails. Neighbours and anyone who had been in touch with the affected staff were also quarantined and/or sent on leave,” Goel told IndiaSpend.
In the first week of June, a special dispensary was set up at Tihar for testing, Goel said, adding that staff members are being checked immediately after complaints of symptoms.