The Bombay High Court on Wednesday asked the Maharashtra government if there were any incidents of a security breach when voice and video call facilities were permitted for inmates in prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic and sought to know why the facility was discontinued.
A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice V G Bisht said that it was not inclined to pass any urgent order allowing the resumption of video and voice call facilities, as the state government needs to be given an opportunity first to file an affidavit.
The court was hearing public interest litigation seeking the resumption of voice and video call facilities for prison inmates to communicate with their families and legal counsels.
The petition, filed by the NGO People's Union for Civil Liberties, claimed that the facility of voice and video calls for prison inmates was arbitrarily and abruptly stopped in 2021.
As per the plea, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in July 2020, jails had started voice and video call facilities for inmates.
The court asked Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni, appearing for the state government, to specify why the facilities were withdrawn and if any incident of a security breach was reported when these facilities were made available during the pandemic.
Kumbhakoni informed the court that he would seek instructions on this from the inspector general (Prisons), but said that there is an apprehension of a security breach, as it would be difficult to know who the inmates are talking to.
Another reason for the suspension of video call facilities is the resumption of physical mulaqats (meetings), he said.
However, the petitioner's advocate Rebecca Gonsalves argued that video call facilities should be made permanent irrespective of physical meetings.
To this, Chief Justice Datta said that this was for the state government to decide.
The court directed the government to file its affidavit by June 10 and posted the matter for further hearing on June 20.
Kumbhakoni further told the court that although video call facilities were not available, inmates were entitled to make phone calls using coin telephone boxes.
The petition claimed that as per the Model Prison Manual issued in 2016, the superintendent of each jail has to allow prisoners to use telephones and electronic communications on payment to contact their families and lawyers.
The petitioner sought for the government's decision to stop voice and video call facilities to be quashed and set aside, as it was violative of the fundamental rights of jail inmates.
The decision to stop voice and video call facilities and allow only physical meetings impose unnecessary hardships on family members and legal representatives of inmates, the plea claimed.
Voice and video calls were convenient for inmates who were lodged in prisons outside their place of residence, it said.
(Inputs from PTI)