Even as the Bombay High court on Monday asked the Advocate General (AG) Ashutosh Kumbhokani to visit one or more prisons in the state and submit an "independent report" after taking stock of the facilities there including access to phone calls and video conference facilities for inmates, the government has filed an affidavit stating that there is a security threat for continuing the video call facilities in the prisons, in the present form.
The Maharashtra government has filed an affidavit in HC in response to a PIL filed by NGO People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), stating that the government and prison authorities arbitrarily and abruptly stopped the facilities in 2021. The PIL prayed that the facilities be restarted in prisons to enable inmates to get in touch with their lawyers and family members.
The affidavit was filed by Sunil Ramanand Additional director general of police stating that there is no machinery and/ or system to monitor all the audio-video call interactions between prisoners and outsiders. “No record is created in respect of numbers actually called/dialled in case of Internet audio/ video calls," adds the affidavit.
A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice SS Shinde directed the AG to submit an "independent report" within three weeks.
During the hearing on Monday, AG informed the court that although some prisons had video conference facilities, granting access to inmates the same was difficult because of "practical difficulties."
To this, the court suggested that AG personally visit the prisons to understand the problems faced by inmates.
Justice Shinde said: "I will suggest, Mr AG, that you please visit jails. Then you will understand. I myself have visited two jails with SC judge Justice UU Lalit."
"Most prisons have a capacity of 600 inmates, and there are over 3500 prisoners. So all facilities have to be updated accordingly. The prisoners should know about the status of their matter and how many sentences have they served," said Justice Shinde. He further added, "After your visit, it will change your perspective."
CJ Datta too remarked that the state could not have correctional homes operating beyond their capacities.
The Superintendence and Management of Prisons in the state are governed by the Maharashtra Prisons Manu, 1979, which does not provide for video calling facility as any of the modes of communication. "In the total absence of any statutory provisions in this regard", the petitioner can neither ask for it 'as a right of the prisoner", nor can it be granted, adds the affidavit.
The affidavit adds that in view of the pandemic, the video calling facility was made available "purely on compassionate and humanitarian grounds, as a result of an extraordinary and unique situation," adds the affidavit. To provide the facility, smartphones, SIM cards, WiFi, etc. were acquired and made available to all the inmates irrespective of their crime and conduct.
A circular was issued to the effect permitting the use of a video call facility, in which it was clarified that the same will be available till the time physical mulaquat will be resumed. Hence, the facility was started as a "stop gap arrangement", adds the affidavit.
The affidavit states that pursuant to a representation by the PUCL, the co-ordinator of e-prisons and Deputy Inspector General of Prisons have been asked to submit a report on the feasibility of continuing the video calling and internet calling facilities.
The PIL pointed out that the video call facility was made available to the inmates during the first and second waves of the COVID 19 pandemic. However, the same was stopped, after most covid-related restrictions were relaxed by the state government.