The Centre has asked all states and Union territories to take appropriate action for maintaining proper hygiene in jails and handling prisoners, including foreign nationals, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
In a letter to chief secretaries and DGPs of all states and Union territories, the Home Ministry said the prevailing situation in the country is being monitored at the highest level and it is considered necessary that appropriate measures are taken at all levels without any exception.
"While the prison authorities in states and UTs may take appropriate precautions and steps for maintaining proper hygiene conditions in prisons, it may also be necessary to take various steps to reduce movement of prisoners, including their production in courts, for the time being to ensure 'social distancing'," Joint Secretary in the Home Ministry Punya Salila Srivastava said in the letter.
The ministry asked the states and UTs to take due care in handling prisoners, including foreign nationals, and visitors to prisons.
"States and UTs are requested to engage with their health departments for arranging screening devices and kits to be used in prisons for screening inmates and their visitors," the letter said.
The states and UTs were also told to encourage the meeting of prisoners with their visitors through the video-conferencing facility available as "e-mulakat", a module under the e-prisons project, for the time being to avoid physical contact.
Citing World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, the Home Ministry said the most effective protective measures are cleaning hands regularly, properly covering the mouth when one coughs and social distancing.
"This is a rapidly evolving situation and information is being updated as it becomes available."
"The government of India is taking a series of measures to check and contain the spread of coronavirus," the letter said.
The home ministry said a large number of prisons and courts in the country have a facility for video-conferencing for production of prisoners in courts.
This includes the traditional video-conference setup (point-to-point) connected to designated places in court complexes and the "Vidyo" system set-up -- established under the e-Courts project, which is an internet-based software solution for a video-conference between courts and prisons.
Most of the prisons and courts in the country are equipped with the "Vidyo" set-up.
However, where the "Vidyo" set-up is not operational, the state NIC units may be approached by the prison and court authorities for obtaining user-ids and passwords and making the system operational.
The system is user-friendly and can be operated on smartphones also. The state NIC units will render all necessary assistance to the prisons in this regard, the ministry said.
This procedure will reduce movement of prisoners and their visit to crowded places such as court complexes.
The states and UTs may engage with appropriate authorities of courts, the State Legal Services Authority and legal service clinics for various measures to reduce the movement of prisoners, the letter said.
"It is expected that with the cooperation of all concerned, these measures can go a long way in checking the spread of coronavirus," it added.