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Prisons and the pandemic: the panopticon plays out

Vijay Raghavan ()
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Vijay Raghavan: Tata Institute of Social Sciences

Journal of Social and Economic Development, 2021, vol. 23, issue 2, No 13, 388-397

Abstract: Abstract Fearing the spread of the COVID 19 infection in prisons, governments have released seemingly large numbers of prisoners in many countries. However, in terms of overall percentages, the releases have been less significant. In India, prisons are overcrowded with nearly 70% under trials. With very poor sanitation and healthcare facilities, there are numerous deaths in custody due to various illnesses, including heart, lung, liver and kidney-related ailments as well as HIV, tuberculosis and cancer. It is in this context that the need to take urgent steps to contain the spread of the contagion inside prisons became apparent to the prison authorities around the time the national lockdown was announced by the Government of India. Some of the measures taken by prison departments include creation of temporary prisons to admit new prisoners and keep them in quarantine for 14 days before transferring them to the regular prisons, transfer of prisoners from congested prisons to less crowded prisons, making prisoners aware of the virus, setting up Corona care centres inside or outside prisons, etc. While prison authorities claim that they were taking necessary preventive steps within existing limitations, there has been some criticism of the inadequacy of these measures and the conditions inside prisons. The Supreme Court of India took suo moto cognizance of the issue and asked state governments to constitute a High Powered Committees to identify categories of prisoners who could be released. The article highlights that the criteria for release was based on the purported seriousness of the offence rather than vulnerability to getting infected. Also, the absence of gender disaggregated data on release of prisoners indicates the lack of importance given to the needs of women prisoners. It can be said that the policies and measures taken towards preventing the spread of COVID 19 pandemic in prisons has reinforced existing biases against prisoners. The major concern of the prison and judicial authorities was to somehow manage the situation without disturbing the ‘dangerousness’ and risk to ‘law and order’ narrative about prisoners. The article concludes by drawing attention to the fact that the Foucauldian principles of segregation, segmentation and surveillance were maintained in the decision making processes relating to treatment of prisoners during the pandemic.

Keywords: Prisons; Under trial prisoners; Pandemic; Release of prisoners; Panopticon (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2021
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DOI: 10.1007/s40847-020-00127-9

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