Tihar inmates likely to receive virtual visitors from next week
Tihar prison is likely to start allowing virtual visits by the families of inmates, perhaps as early as next week, senior officers said as one of the country’s largest prisons adapts to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has prompted companies to encourage WFH (work from home), schools to go virtual with their classes, even socialising to move online to video conference applications.
Senior jail officers familiar with the development said on condition of anonymity that across all 16 sub jails in Tihar, Rohini and the Mandoli prison complex, computer stations are being installed to facilitate video conferencing between prisoners and their families.
Director-general of prisons Sandeep Goel confirmed that prisoners at Tihar will soon have the facility of video conferencing. “It should be operational within a week or 10 days. Even after the pandemic, we may even use this facility for many prisoners who do not have their families in the city.”
Some prisons in the UK and the US are offering similar virtual visitation facilities to cope with the restrictions on movement and interactions necessitated by Covid-19, and Byculla jail in Mumbai has started video conferencing for women inmates, but Tihar will be the first prison in India to offer the facilities for all its inmates.
At Tihar, where around 14,000 inmates are housed, there have been no visits since late March when a lockdown to slow the spread of the pandemic was imposed. The lockdown lasted till May 31 in four phases, but many activities still remain restricted. For instance, schools have not been allowed to open (nor have multiplexes and gymnasiums); and metro services have not resumed. Prison visits, too, have not resumed. Previously they used to be allowed twice a week.
There have been previous occasions when video conferences have been allowed from jail -- between inmates and their family or lawyers -- but these have been rare. The alleged middleman in the Agusta Westland chopper case Christian Michel, for instance, has been allowed to do this.
A senior prison officer who asked not to be named said that every jail superintendent gets anywhere between five and 10 requests a day from prisoners requesting authorities to let them meet their families. “They say their relatives are unwell and that they want to see them in person. Prisoners watch the news or read the paper, so they are aware that everyone is meeting virtually these days. Even police and government are holding meetings or meeting complainants over video calls. Once prisoners start interacting with their families over video calls, it will be easier for us to manage them too. The prisoners will be happy.”
The fact that the visits are virtual will also make them easier to manage and allow more of them.
“One advantage of a video call is also that prisoners will be able to interact with all their family members at one time. In jail it was not possible to allow everyone, so we allowed only one visitor,” the officer added.
The facility, jail officers said, would be available for all prisoners, except for those who are restricted from such contact by courts or the prison department.
Across the city, courts have also stared holding proceedings within the court complex since April. Inmates, who are produced by police in a video conferencing room within the jail complex , appear before the e-courts.
On June 22, the prison department also started a video conference facility for prisoners and their lawyers. With around 14000 prisoners lodged in the three prison complexes, the entry of outsiders such as families, lawyers, and social workers has been restricted to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease. The prisoners are in touch with their family through the jail’s telephone facility. Every prisoner is allotted a five minute call every day. Until the lockdown, prisoners had to pay for the call but after the visits were cancelled, the prisons department has offered the telephone facility free of cost.
Prison expert Ajay Verma, a former convener of the National Forum for Prison Reforms, a group of lawyers which is seeking prison reforms, said “it is high time to start e-mulaqat (virtual meetings) across prisons in a large scale”. He added that the “prison administration must have a high bandwidth internet connection. This will help prisoners de-stress at a time such as this.”
Until Monday evening, the three sub jails of Tihar reported at least 141 cases of Covid-19 among prisoners and jail officials. Of the total 141 cases, 53 are prisoners and 88 jail staff. In all, 31 prisoners and 28 jail employees have recovered, while the others are in isolation. Two prisoners have died of the disease.