On 27th June 2020, the National Constitution Society (NCS) & Centre for Law and Policy Research (CLPR) conducted a webinar on ‘Prisoners & the Pandemic: Health, Safety and the Constitution’.

The panelists for the webinar were Senior Advocate Ms. Jayna Kothari (Senior Advocate and Executive Director of CLPR) and Prof (Dr.) Sanjeev P. Sahni (Principal Director of Jindal Institute of Behavioral Sciences and Member – Board of Directors, International Society of Criminology). Kruthika R (Research Associate, CLPR) moderated the event.

The webinar brought to light pertinent issues regarding bail conditionalities, the level of hygiene in prisons and role of the Judiciary in upholding the right to life and dignity of the prisoners in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Noting that as a result of the pandemic, states have released a number of undertrial prisoners who were unable to attain or afford bail, Ms. Jayna Kothari advocated for a reform of the bail system. She argued that the monetary considerations ordinarily attached to bail prevented economically disadvantaged groups from leaving prison on bail. She suggested that alternative methods of bail, such as personnel bonds, could be considered instead.

Professor Sanjeev Sahni focused on the impact of abysmal conditions in prisons on the development of a criminal psyche. He contended that the release of prisoners could only be undertaken effectively if society made efforts towards rehabilitation and reintegration.  Professor Sahni emphasized the importance of civil responsibility towards prisoner’s rights and the need for inter-disciplinary prison programmes to empower prisoners in developing skills to use in the outside world.

After the panelists finished their respective speeches, the floor was opened for discussion. Kruthika R, moderating the session, directed the questions to the relevant panelists.

In response to a question raised by a participant, Ms. Kothari discussed whether the pandemic could be cited as a basis to seek bail, on the grounds that it could affect a prisoner’s right to life under Article 21. She pointed to the lack of water supplies, mental and reproductive health services, and other basic infrastructure as indicating that basic constitutional rights of prisoners were being violated. She also observed that prisoners have a constitutional right to health, and therefore should be considered during discussions on ‘public health’.

Leading from earlier his point on the effect of prison conditions on the development of a criminal psyche, Dr. Sahni spoke about the negative impact of the prison diet and exercise routine. He contended that the lack of nutrition and exposure to fresh air could result in accumulated anger and frustration, which impacted impulse control. He used this point to emphasise the importance of redeveloping and reforming the prison system.

The panelists both discussed the use of technology to ensure that prisoners have access to their constitutional rights, especially their right to access legal aid. In particular, they focused on the merits and demerits of using the E-Mulakat system to allow prisoners to interact with their lawyers.

(This blog was authored by Prerna Dadu, a 5th year student at Jindal Global Law School).