Prisoner's Rights During A Pandemic

Updated: May 10, 2020

Residential Institutions like observation homes and prisons house a large number of people into a very small space for a long period. There has been an increase in the number of COVID 19 cases in the community. The crime rate has decreased in the past month due to the strict lockdown measures being implemented all over India. Still, there are incidents taking place and individuals are being taken into prisons. This points out that the entry to the prisons is not restricted, which then opens up a route for infection spreading into the prisons. Our prisons are already overcrowded with a nationwide occupancy rate at 114%, according to the India Justice Report 2019. It would be hit very hard due to the speed at which the virus spreads among humans. The situations inside our prisons are not very good, making the conditions worse. As of now, there is no vaccine available to provide immunity to humans. Even if basic tests like thermal screenings are employed, asymptomatic new admission of prisoners might spread the virus in the prisons which makes it important to follow some preventive steps. The outbreak was unexpected, unusual and surprising but there have been past incidents of the epidemic, and also cholera outbreaks in prison. Thus there are steps mentioned in the Model Prison Manual(MPM) released in the year 2016 by the Ministry of Home Affairs, GOI, which is used as a guide by the state governments to formulate their state-level guidelines for prisons.

There are different sections in the MPM that mentions actions to be taken before, during and after the outbreak of an epidemic disease.

The section dealing with infrastructure mentions provision of a Prison Hospital with a required number of wards to be maintained including isolation wards. It also mentions the number of doctors with different specialization to be employed. The MPM mentions that for every 300 prisoners 1 Medical Officer is to be recruited. There should be a doctor present at all times in the central prisons.

As the origin of COVID 19 is from outside prison, the major route of infection getting into prison is from the new admissions. So it becomes important to take necessary provisions when admitting new patients. It mandates a medical checkup along with disinfecting his belongings which are allowed to be taken into prison. Vaccines are also to be administered to the new prisoner by mentioning his medical records in his history ticket.

Medical administration is one of the important concerns of the prison administration.

The transfer of prisoners is prohibited when there is a case of infection in either transferring or receiving prison.

There is a full chapter on emergency which considers epidemics as an emergency.

The Superintendent has the responsibility to take sufficient measures for preventing and controlling emergencies, in conformity with the Disaster Management Act 2005 and any other Act, which may be relevant.

Some of the important provisions in this chapter are as follows.

  • When an epidemic is present in the vicinity of a prison, communication between the staff and the infected locality shall be, as far as possible, prevented and special care shall be taken that all arrangements to meet an outbreak are completed.

  • Every Prison shall be provided with a permanent segregation shed outside the prison walls. On the occurrence of a case, the patient shall not be taken to hospital but shall be immediately removed to one of these sheds while all orderlies and scavengers attending on the case shall be strictly isolated in another shed. If possible the prisoners shall be removed to an infectious disease hospital outside the prison.

  • Prisoners who came in contact with the patient shall be detained under medical observation in a separate building.

  • Overcrowding must be strictly avoided both in the hospital as well as in every cell and ward.

  • If three or more cases occur within one week of the occurrence of the first case of disease, it shall be concluded that the disease has assumed an epidemic form.

Following practices too can be implemented in prison to prevent infection,

  1. Hand sanitizers should be made available throughout the facility.

  2. Masks to be provided to individuals who are feeling sick and they should be shifted to separate wards as per the provisions mentioned in the manual.

  3. Washing hands regularly and keeping the hands away from the face, etc. different effective behavioral changes to be taught to prisoners.

  4. Regularly disinfecting the common places, group cells, dorms, and single cells.

  5. Implementing physical distancing measures as much as possible.

  6. Formulation of steps to be employed if any positive case turns up in jail, the designation of hospitals for treating patients from prisons.

The MPM has a section mentioning the rights and duties of prisoners which are based upon the report of the Mulla Committee.

  1. Right to human dignity

  2. Right to basic Minimum needs

  3. Right to Communication

  4. Right to Access to Law

  5. Right Against arbitrary Prison Punishment

  6. Right to meaningful and Gainful Employment

  7. Right to be released on the due date.

In a number of judgments on various aspects of prison administration, the Supreme Court of India has laid down three broad principles:

a) A person in prison does not become a non-person.

b) A person in prison is entitled to all human rights within the limitations of imprisonment.

c) There is no justification in aggravating the suffering already inherent in the process of incarceration.

It is harder in prison to prevent infection but implementing basic measures suggested by different health institutions and following the standard operating procedure is necessary because so many people are together living and working in a partially closed environment.


  1. Model Prison Manual 2016, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. Retrieved from:

  2. India Justice Report 2019. Retrieved from:




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