Elgar Parishad case: Families upset over phone calls of undertrial prisoners

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It has been a month since Sahaba Hussain, lodged in Navi Mumbai’s Taloja Central Jail, spoke to his accomplice Gautam Navlakha, who was lodged as an undertrial in the Elgar Parishad case. Hussain is one of several family members who have been affected by the Maharashtra Prisons Department’s decision to stop phone calls and video calls from inmates after physical meetings resumed last month.

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

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

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

However, this was a temporary arrangement. While physical visits have now been allowed, the service has been suspended, an official said.

Family members like Hussain, who lives outside Maharashtra, said it was difficult for them to go to Taloja jail. Hussain is also a senior citizen and lives in Delhi, 1,500 km from the jail.

“It is impractical and still with the pandemic, going to jail every month for even talking to him for a few minutes is a health concern. Video calls were for a few minutes every week. It allowed me to see him, talk about his health,” says Hussain.

She further adds that there is also a apprehension that since only blood relatives and husband and wife are allowed to go to jails for muktans, as companions, they may not be allowed.

The family of another prisoner, who lives in Uttar Pradesh, said they often do not have money to travel to Mumbai. The family members of undertrials can visit the convicts once a week and twice.

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

Hussain says that he last spoke to Navlakha on October 13. Since then, the only communication with her was a letter dated October 25, but received on November 5. In a phone call last month, he had spoken of continuing. Health needs, including pending hospital visits.

A senior prison official said, “We will discuss to see if the phone call can be continued, especially in cases where family members cannot visit the prisoners.”

Even last year, before the second wave of the pandemic, phone calls and video calls were temporarily suspended and officials claimed they wanted to prevent “abuse”.

In 2017-18, a committee headed by Justice (retd) Dr S Radhakrishnan on prison reforms, which was set up by the state government for prison reforms, recommended that 20-minute phone calls for undertrials and convicts Permission should be granted, stating that the revival of the family and the maintenance of ties were important. It said 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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