One person died in the police firing and at least 28 prisoners, jail staffers and cops were injured and taken to RG Kar Medical College and Hospital. Among the injured were OSD & ADG (Prisons) Arun Gupta and ADG (CID) SN Gupta.
Several prisoners tried to scale the over 20-foot walls of Bengal’s largest prison facility during the riot, which continued for over eight hours in the middle of a crowded Dum Dum neighbourhood. Three others were caught trying to sneak out of the prison gates and there remains a possibility of a couple having escaped, officials said.
The arsenal used by the undertrial prisoners indicated it was a “planned” jailbreak operation, officials said, but there were three immediate sparks, all linked to Covid-19 fears and several steps implemented by the government over the last one week to control its spread.
One of the immediate causes was a decision by prison authorities on Friday to suspend till March 31 the bi-weekly prisoner “interviews” with family members; this would have significantly reduced the number of jail visitors.
Another trigger was a government proposal for a 15-day special parole for lifers who had already spent 10 years in prison with certified “good conduct”; this would have led to the release of 500 lifers and freed up several cells for use as isolation wards.
The third issue that the rioters mentioned was delayed court production of under-trials (courts are taking up only urgent matters and encouraging more video-conferencing).
The first inkling of trouble came around 10.30 am on Saturday when a section of undertrials, demanding hand-sanitisers and masks, “started getting agitated”, officials said. This soon led to the demand that they be allowed their weekend “interviews” with family members. This was followed by slogans against parole applications being turned down (even aslifers’ ap[plications “were being allowed”).
A scuffle then broke out between undertrials and convicts, with many lifers housed in Ward 9 being the first targets. A prison jailer tried to broker peace but was attacked and this became a free-for-all within minutes, with police and prison staffers being severely outnumbered.
Reinforcements arrived around an hour later but, by then, under-trials had taken over the prison. They ransacked the canteen, set it on fire and hurled bricks at police even as some more tried to breach the prison wall. A group then reached the first floor of the prison office and started throwing stones at security guards outside.
By 12.30 p.m., the administrative office housing the jailer’s cabin was on fire even as a section of under-trials reached the gate between the main compound and the jailer’s office and tried to break it open.
“We received information about the fire around 12.20 p.m. We are not sure how and where it started,” state fire minister Sujit Bose said. Ten fire tenders were rushed to the spot as state as Bose’s colleague, food minister Jyotipriyo Mullick, arrived to help in the dialogue.
A reinforced police team then started the counter-attack, first lobbing tear-gas shells at the warring groups and then finally opening fire when the under-trials showed no sign of backing away from their efforts to mow down the main gate. Officials said the force was instructed to “fire in the air”.
Jail inmates backed away from the main gate but regrouped inside, bursting gas cylinders and continuing with their brick-batting. Barrackpore Police commissioner Manoj Verma then arrived with Rapid Action Force (RAF) and combat battalions after several security personnel were injured.
The situation cooled down a bit around 3 p.m. and police started shifting the injured to the hospital but there were reports of violence continuing deep inside the prison. The situation flared up again around 4.30 p.m. and cops resorted to several more rounds of firing. A tenuous peace returned only after that.
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