Elgaar Parishad case: Kin harried as phone calls of undertrials discontinued

The prison department has decided to discontinue phone calls and video calls from prisoners after physical mulaqats (meetings) were resumed last month.

IT HAS been a month since Sahba Husain spoke to her partner, Gautam Navlakha, lodged at Taloja Central Jail in Navi Mumbai as an undertrial in the Elgaar Parishad case. Husain is one of the many family members affected by the decision by the Maharashtra prison department to discontinue phone calls and video calls from prisoners after physical mulaqats (meetings) were resumed last month.

In March last year, after the pandemic began in the country, prisons across the state stopped physical mulaqats between inmates and their family members and lawyers to avoid the spread of the disease.

While many prisons across the country have coinbox facilities for undertrials and convicts, Maharashtra is the only state, which does not allow phone facilities from jail for undertrials. Convicts are allowed to use the PCO facility to call their families for 5-10 minutes periodically.

During the pandemic, when physical meetings were stopped, the prison department added 138 smartphones to the 76 existing coin boxes to facilitate phone calls and video calls between inmates and their families.

However, it was a temporary arrangement. An official said with physical mulaqats now allowed, the service has been discontinued.

Family members like Husain, who live outside Maharashtra said that it was difficult for them to visit Taloja jail. Husain is also a senior citizen and resides in Delhi, over 1,500 km away from the jail.

“It is impractical and with the pandemic still on, also a health concern to visit the jail every month to speak to him for a few minutes. The video calls were every week for a few minutes. It allowed me to see him, speak to him about his health,” Husain says.

She adds that an apprehension also remains that since only blood relatives and spouses are allowed to visit prisons for mulaqats, as a partner, she may not be allowed.

Another inmate’s family, who live in Uttar Pradesh, said that they do not have the finances to make trips to Mumbai often. Undertrials can be visited by family members once a week and convicts twice.

“We cannot travel to Mumbai by booking tickets, finding a place to stay and then visiting the jail to see our son. We managed to speak to him when he would call but now the calls have stopped,” said the father of an undertrial lodged in a Mumbai jail.

Husain says that she last spoke to Navlakha on October 13. Since then, the only communication she has had with him in a letter written on October 25 but received by her on November 5. In the phone call last month, he had spoken of ongoing health requirements, including pending hospital visits.

“We will be conducting a discussion to consider whether phone calls can be continued, especially in cases where family members cannot visit inmates,” said a senior prison official.

Last year too, before the second wave of the pandemic, phone calls and video calls were discontinued for a brief period with officials claiming that they want to prevent “misuse”.

A committee chaired by Justice (retired) Dr S Radhakrishnan on Prison Reforms in 2017-18, set up by the state government for prison reforms had recommended that phone calls should be allowed for 20 minutes for undertrials and convicts stating that revival and maintenance of family relations were important. It stated that the Home Department should issue a Government Resolution allowing phone calls for undertrials but the recommendation has not been implemented so far.

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