The video conferencing facility that was introduced in prisons across Maharashtra in 2010 for the production of undertrials lodged before courts every fortnight — as ordained by law — will now be used for conducting trials when one of the parties is unable to be present in court and getting prisoners medical help. Using the facility, prisoners can also now meet family members who stay in other parts of the state.
While Yerawada has had video-conferencing facility since 2005, other prisons that got it in 2010 have had 34,47,59 instances of inmates being produced before courts using this system till July this year. The figures have risen from 43,491 such instances in 2013 to 35,242 in the first seven months of 2015.
“In June this year, through a Government Resolution (GR), a provision was made for also allowing doctors, forensic scientists and policemen to give evidence in a court of law through video-conferencing, a facility only restricted to extending judicial custody earlier,” said Bipin Kumar Singh, Inspector General of Police (Prisons) .
According to officials, a lot of times, officers, doctors, forensic scientists handling the case needs to travel to other places across the state for work making it difficult for them to be present during the trial, leading to delays. The video conferencing facility will help solve this problem.
Apart from this, the facility attempts to solve a major problem of inadequate number of escort staff that are available to ferry inmates from jails to court. Many a times, inmates miss their court dates and languish in prison for months as no staff from the Local Arms (LA) department – the unit responsible for providing escorts – are available to take undertrials to the 75 courts across the city.
“We already have a dedicated team of 609 officials just for escorting but even that is not enough. In this light, the video-conferencing facility can be a big boost,” a senior officer from the LA unit told The Indian Express.
It can be used for telemedicine where inmates suffering from minor infections can communicate with the doctors by video conferencing.
“For skin infections – a major problem in prisons – the inmates can be made to sit before the video conferencing facility that is connected to a screen in the local government hospital, where the doctor can have a look and prescribe medicine accordingly,” the official said.
The facility of ‘e-mulakat’ has also been started whereby Mumbai-based family members of an inmate lodged in Nagpur prison can communicate with him through the VC facility. set up in the Arthur Road prison and Nagpur prison after co-ordinating with the prison staff.
Both these projects are however at the initial stages.
The video-conferencing system, however, has its own pitfalls, believe defence lawyers.
Advocate Prakash Salsingikar said that there were several occasions when during an inmate’s cross examination, his lawyer might need to consult him privately or take instructions from him.
“Because of the video-conferencing facility this cannot be done. The facility is good for petty offences but in major crimes it may be used against the accused,” he said.
Advocate Farhana Shah added that video-conferencing could create a problem when it came to witnesses identifying accused based on body marks, moles or height.
Special Public Prosecutor Raja Thakare said that in cases of rape or kidnapping a victim was genereally scared to identify the accused in person. In such cases, video-conferencing was nothing short of a boon.
He however added that video-conferencing was not possible in case one accused was in Arthur Road jail and other in Taloja as there was no facility for ‘multi channel proceeding’.
Another lawyer said that if the accused was presented before the judge through video-conferencing and the judge asked him if he had any complaints against the prison officials, he would not be able to talk openly standing in prison with guards standing in the same room.
“Also coming to courts is the only time a prisoner gets to come out of the four walls. They look forward to this time as it also gives them a chance to meet family members,” the lawyer said. However, jail officials countered this by saying that such court sessions were even used to smuggle goods into the prison.
A former senior prison official said, “We admit that there are certain lapses in the system — like an inmate being intimidated while giving evidence against prison official etc. However, over a period of time, we should be able to iron out these problems. If developed well, video-conferencing facility could be a game changer.”