Doctors in Unite – the doctors branch of the Unite the union, have issued a statement to highlight the plight of political prisoners in Indian prisons who are subject to worsening conditions brought on by the rapid spread of Covid-19. 

The medics also raise the “overcrowded and unhygienic” conditions which leave an estimated half a million indian prisoners exposed to a high level of the virus.

Dr Jackie Applebee, Chair of Doctors in Unite said: “Among those locked up are a considerable number of people whose only ‘crime’ has been to dissent or to take part in non-violent protests. Some of them are elderly, many are in poor health and particularly vulnerable to catching the virus, others have already been infected and reportedly either being denied treatment or only receive it after enormous pressure from their friends and families.”

Among those mentioned in the statement is Prof Anand Teltumbde, a prominent academic and outspoken critic of the Indian government who was arrested in April, along with 10 lawyers, poets, and activists, accused of instigating caste violence at a Dalit rally in Bhima Koregaon village in the western state of Maharashtra in 2018. 

Their confinement has been criticised by campaigners and human rights organisations who have been pressing for their release. 

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, a US based non-profit commented: “Indian authorities are using draconian counterterrorism laws against activists simply for criticizing the government or raising their voices against injustice,” 

An investigation by The Independent looked at the situation inside the prisons. Many of the inmates were too scared to speak for fear of reprisals, but criminal lawyer Nipun Arora told the Independent:

“A lot of inmates have been terrified of the possibility that they might get infected inside and this fear was present during the first wave as well. The fear is stemming primarily from the fact that neither is social distancing being practised, nor are masks being used properly by the inmates. The conditions of the prisons are even otherwise considered unhygienic.”

Studies have shown that detention facilities create unique populations that are often more susceptible to the spread of disease. The World Health Organisation (WHO), drew the attention of world leaders to the “heightened vulnerability of prisoners and urged them to take all appropriate public health measures in respect of this vulnerable population”.

According to the non-profit Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) says there have been more than 22,000 reported cases amongst inmates, but these figures are several months out of date. 

The government made attempts to relieve the situation by the mass release of 60,000 inmates back in March 2020, but prison numbers have risen again because of the pace at which the police have made new arrests.

The Indian Express provides an update from May: “Before decongestion measures can be evaluated, accurate data is needed on the prevalence of infection in jails. But no official data is available. There are worrying reports of inmates being denied COVID tests for days despite exhibiting symptoms.”

The health threat is not helped by a history of overcrowding – the average occupancy rate across Indian jails in 2019 was 118.5 per cent – highest in Delhi topping the chart at 174.9 per cent according to National Crime Records Bureau’s 2020 report.

Doctors in Unite are inviting support for the statement and can be contacted at [email protected].


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