The pause this pandemic has created in the everyday functioning of various institutions including the judiciary, shutting down of public spaces like educational institutions, offices and markets amidst the havoc is extraordinary. But the system of prisons is left out from all these restrictions, it goes on. Instead, during the pandemic even the limited access prisoners had with the outer world is getting narrowed down.
In a virtual press meeting of family and friends of Bhima Koregaon 16, more details of the precarious dangers of lives in prisons came to the surface. It threw focus on an existing communication and medical aid blockade by denying needed medical attention and custodial torture .
The meeting was attended by Dr Jenny Rowena (wife of Dr Hany Babu), Harshali Potdar (Activist, Republican Panthers Jatiya Antachi Chalwal, representing journalist Sudhir Dhavale), Fr Joe Xavier (friend of Fr Stan Swamy), Minal Gadling (wife of Adv. Surendra Gadling), Monali Raut (Sister of Mahesh Raut) etc. What sums up their accounts about being able to be in intimacy with their loved ones is that they all are being denied the right to life, when the pandemic is raging on. A few days back they wrote a letter to the Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackerey, demanding the government to provide the accused bail.
"None of the medical reports on Hany Babu's treatment is passed on to us"
MT Hany Babu, professor of English literature and Linguistics at Delhi University, an anti-casteism activist who plays a major role in safeguarding OBC reservation in university campuses, is the twelfth person to be arrested in the Elgar Parishad case. Prof. Babu expressed his worries on the upper hand the state has received along with the pandemic, in a public function held in Delhi in March 2020. Like he said, "suddenly with the virus, the state has to act we've become slaves of the state because we have to look forward to the state."
Prof. Babu had contracted an eye infection on May 3, for which he had to seek the prison authorities' attention continuously; four days later he was taken to an ophthalmologist where he was given antibiotics. With nobody to help, he was finding it difficult to do daily chores, he had to use soiled water in his eyes since the prisoners face a shortage of water. Later, only on May 12th was he admitted to JJ hospital, where his test results showed that he is COVID positive too. "None of the medical reports on Hany Babu's treatment is passed on to us", says his wife Dr Jenny Rowena.
By the end of April, Babu had informed Jenny about the conditions in the jail that there are no tests and vaccination was happening. "No proper diagnosis of his eye infection happened yet. They say muscles are affected, nerves are affected, and he needs proper food. Everybody needs these things. The courts and the state should be held responsible for their lives. During this period, extraordinary measures are needed. Release them on bail. People who get tested in jail always test negative.
Once you are a prisoner then there is no value for your life. We are not going to allow them to get killed. We can't let them continue to remain in the jails" said Jenny Rowena. "There is no hospital in Taloja jail. There are only rooms where around sixty-five prisoners are lodged. His lawyer had to make ten to twenty phone calls to ensure he is taken to hospital. We all know it is a fabricated case. All of them are eminent social activists, society as a unit must come together to demand their bail" she added.
Confiscated Aadhar card, no vaccination without it
Only four of the accused, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudha Bharadwaj and Shoma Sen got the first dose of the vaccine. Sudhir Dhavale, who shares the barrack with Vernon Gonsalves, was excluded from vaccination, saying he didn't have an Aadhaar card. Harshali Potdar of Republican Panthers Jatiya Antachi Chalwal asks when Sudhir's documents were confiscated during the arrest whose responsibility is it to vaccinate him. "They keep Aadhaar card as the criterion to get the vaccination, it is inhumane to keep such criteria," she said.
"The jail hospital has no staff nurse, no pharmacist, no lab technicians, it has only three ayurvedic doctors," Harshali Potdar notes that the Maharashtra Prison Hospital Rules 2015 is being violated in Taloja central jail. "The COVID tests are not done on aged and sick prisoners, instead tests are done on fit and fine ones to show that things are under control. Sudhir Dhavale and Vernon Gonsalves are in the same barrack. In this barrack, eight prisoners are COVID positive. No tests are being done, no vaccination happening. They were being moved to different barracks, causing them mental harassment." Harshali said. "All the BK16 accused should be released right now," she said. Bombay High Court allowed video calls with the prisoners. For audio call, only maximum of four minutes are allowed. "Personal letters are scrutinized before reaching the prisoner" she added.
"Fr. Stan has reached a breaking point"
"I last spoke to Fr Stan on May 11. Only he can make a call, I can't," says Fr. Jose Xavier, referring to his friend Fr. Stan as a person with enormous ability to suffer pain. Fr. Stan Swamy, the oldest among the BK16 is a Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist. He was arrested on October 8th. A Parkinson's disease patient, Fr. Stan until a point had been telling Fr Jose that he is managing. In the latest phone call, he informed his friend that, "now I have to tell you I'm not feeling okay." Fr. Jose said that Fr Stan Swamy is being attended by an ayurvedic doctor, even when he had a running stomach.
"The telephone conversations are very noisy. The postal system collapsed where the letters used to reach in ten days. Please allow us to take care of him. If he says he feels helpless, I think it has reached a breaking point. The state is going to submit a medical report in court, please present the facts. Just providing ayurvedic treatment is unacceptable. It is up to the life and liberty of the individual to get a true report, only then can we say they get equal treatment. We appeal to NIA to treat them as human beings." Fr. Jose said. The only means of communication is the prisoners' five minutes duration phone calls to their family and lawyers. According to their family members, even this channel has become irregular. This indicates an information blockade prisoners are facing.
"Three years of jail intensified the co-morbidities of Adv. Sudha Bharadwaj"
"Poor access to health care, history of pulmonary TB, the unhygienic, unventilated prison and overcrowding in the prison have developed in her new problems including skin infection, arthritis, weight and hair loss, UTI, decaying teeth that leaves her unable to eat and she us now ischemic too," says Smita Gupta, Sudha Bharadwaj's friend.
In April, 14 women in Byculla jail tested COVID positive. After she got vaccinated in April first week, she had diarrhoea for three weeks, she had body ache, fatigue and tastelessness. She became so frail. The jail superintendent called Sudha Bharadwaj a 'habitual complainant'. Finally, she has now been taken to hospital. We've no information about the tests done on her, test results or diagnosis. The lack of transparency on her condition is making it very distressing. This case with no evidence and no trial making the process itself a punishment," she said.
"Prison authorities threatened to cut phone call facility"
Adv. Surendra Gadling's wife Minal Gadling said that the prison authorities have threatened her that they will cut the telephone communication, while she complained about the ill-treatment of her husband in prison. "Surendra is a hepatitis patient, he is diabetic and asthmatic, also is weather sensitive. He can't have a proper check-up, since Taloja jail didn't have a doctor. It was other prisoners who checked his BP. During the first wave, he had shown symptoms, cough and diarrhoea. There wasn't anyone to check. His specs are broken, he had applied for new ones but no result. As a lawyer, he needs it very much to read on his defence. When Surendra's mother died, his bail plea was rejected. The NIA advocate accused him of 'creating drama to get bail'. Who creates drama over their mother's death? On June 6th, it is going to be three years of his arrest. Process in the court is going on. They are under-trial prisoners, but keeping them in prison denies all rights, live, or die, making no difference for anyone. It was on 11th May that I could speak to him last. He doesn't have any symptoms of COVID now. But there are COVID positive inmates around him." Minal explained. She said that though they got new specs for Adv. Gadling, sending it to him is impossible.
"My brother asked for Oximeter"
Monali Raut, sister of activist Mahesh Raut said that Mahesh called and informed that he needs medicines. "The jailer said that they will not accept the medicines. He had asked for an oximeter. Still, I'm going to try. They accepted the medicines when I went with the lawyer, but now the lawyer to is COVID positive." She said.
Dr Harish MT, brother of Hany Babu said the fact that prison authorities are not accepting medicines in the guise of COVID and they are restricting communication at a time when jail staffs are getting infected by the virus in large numbers must be noted. The blockade on communication and medical aiding is condemned by the relatives of these prisoners. They demand immediate release of the accused on bail.
According to various news reports, there were more than sixty COVID cases in Taloja jail in March. Currently, there are more than forty cases that are reported. Co-morbidities and lack of medical attention have increased the risk of prisoners' lives inside India's two or three times overcrowded prisons. The Supreme Court judgment that asks for decongesting prisons by allowing parole for prisoners whose jail sentence is upto seven years is discriminatory towards UAPA prisoners. As Adv. Shahrukh Alam has pointed out in a meeting of family members of under-trial prisoners named 'Prisoners in Pandemic' (organized by United Against Hate), the major question we must address along with that of immediate decongestion of prisons is why the Indian prisons are overcrowded.