Officials say videoconferencing saves money and time in transporting inmates, but critics point out that the system hurts the accused.
Video links prisoners with courtrooms in India for speedier justice
BANGALORE // At the Bangalore Central Prison, in a room darkened by a heavy blue curtain, a young man is bent low over a microphone.
"I've been waiting one and a half years. Please finish up my case," said the 23-year-old prisoner, keeping his eyes fixed on a TV screen. It showed choppy images of a magistrate sitting 27km away, shuffling through documents about the theft of gold jewellery worth about 150,000 rupees (Dh12,200). The prisoner could see himself, too: a tiny blip in a white Nike T-shirt, visible on a screen suspended above the magistrate's shoulder.
"I'll see to it," the magistrate replied vaguely. Without glancing at the screen, he approved more jail time and briskly moved on to the next file.
Such bleak scenes have wide-ranging implications for criminal justice, both in India and other nations seeking to streamline their inefficient legal systems.
Short on police escorts and eager to avoid the risks of moving inmates, India is increasingly relying on videoconferencing to link its crowded prisons with its courtrooms. Kerala and Punjab are the latest states to embrace the technology. A national programme to supply states with more bandwidth is expected to spur the adoption of even more technology during the next two years.
For now, video is mostly used in pre-trial proceedings. Case volumes are high. At the Bangalore Central Prison, for example, more than 150 prisoners are produced via video each day that the courts are in session - barring technical glitches. Some high-profile trials have also incorporated the technology. India is considered a pioneer in the field.
Marc-Alexis Remond, the global director for government solutions and market development for Polycom, a leading provider of telepresence systems, said: "India seems to be quite advanced in the region as far as utilisation of videoconferencing in the court is concerned. As bandwidth becomes more widely available and higher speed, they will upgrade their existing systems to enjoy the highest quality of video and share evidence which they cannot do today."
India's prison officials are embracing videoconferencing as a sure-fire way to save money and time that would be spent transporting prisoners the old-fashioned way: by bus, in handcuffs, accompanied by police officers trying to prevent escapes or foil attacks by gangs.
Because of a dearth of escorts, even the smallest cases get bogged down, leaving poor and ill-educated inmates languishing in prison. Roughly two thirds of India's 428,000-plus prisoners have not yet been convicted of any crime. They are known as "undertrials", and they must watch and wait. Now, increasingly, they are watching from afar.
M R Ahmed, the director of the Academy of Prisons and Correctional Administration, a government institute, said: "We are harnessing technology for speedy justice." Mr Ahmed lobbied India's penal establishment to adopt the technology after returning in 1999 from a visit to the UK, where he watched judges consult with probation officers through video. "This system not only protects human rights, but ensures that the prisoner is produced."
Alexander Jacob, the additional director general of police (prisons) in Kerala, said: "Generally, it is speeding things up. They were successful in other states, and looking into their model, we thought this would be advantageous in Kerala." At the Bangalore Central Prison, officials say that the technology saves more than 900,000 rupees each month. They plan to install five more videoconferencing halls in the prison this year.
But some defence lawyers say the system often hurts the accused. While video is convenient for jails and courts, critics argue that it has blunted incentives to grant bail and curtailed the prisoner's access to legal counsel. Generally, defence lawyers do not travel to prisons for video proceedings.
Murali Karnam, a lawyer in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, where the technology made its debut in 2001 and has now spread to all districts in the state, said: "I feel that it's completely working against the prisoners." Whenever the accused comes to court directly, he will have a chance to see his own defence lawyer, especially if appointed a legal aid lawyer by the state, Mr Karnam said. Given just a few minutes of on-screen time, however, the prisoner has scant opportunity to explain why he deserves bail, or why he cannot afford it.
Moreover, "the prosecutor doesn't see the accused at all. So he doesn't feel compelled to complete the investigation on time. Judges routinely give an extension [of detention]", Mr Karnam added. Under Indian law, prisoners under investigation must be produced before a judge every 14 days; the law was amended to sanction video appearances.
The problems are compounded by electricity shortages and other issues in rural prisons, such as in Gujarat. Navaz Kotwal, the programme co-ordinator for the Access to Justice Programme under the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a non-government group, said: "There is bad reception. You can barely hear, you can barely see. The moment the accused wants to ask some questions, he gets cut off."
According to Jiwan Garg, the senior superintendent at the Central Jail in Patiala, Punjab, the lines are sometimes disconnected because the government fails to pay the telecom bills promptly. "It will improve with time," Mr Garg said. Ten jails in Punjab have been hooked up to courts through videoconferencing over the past six months, with another 16 prisons slated to get connected this year.
Ms Kotwal said that some ambivalence was also expressed during a training session in December at the National Judicial Academy. While some judges maintained that a video appearance was better than a no-show, others expressed reservations. "Is this the next best alternative, or are we just moving backwards?" she countered.
Other lawyers voice concerns that prisoners will feel too intimidated to complain to judges of ill-treatment. Bruises would not show up on screen.
At the High Court of Karnataka, however, confidence reigns. Plans are afoot to shift to high definition videoconferencing and expand connections from the 20 district headquarters to all 180 court complexes.
Elsewhere in Asia, Singapore has started to rely on videoconferencing for "tele-visitation", allowing families to communicate with prisoners on a screen.
In South Korea, officials have installed videoconferencing for "tele-health", affording prisoners access to remote medical care. Malaysia has turned to relatively low-tech, PC-based court sessions using webcams. The US remains the most advanced market for videoconferencing in the corrections field, with uses ranging from long-distance learning programmes for juvenile offenders, contact with families and doctors, and some pre-trial proceedings and sentencing, according to Polycom.
Behind bars, the verdict is mixed. Some prisoners said that the only way to guarantee a police escort to court is to pay for one. Officials dispute this, but most prisoners could not afford it, anyway.
That includes the young man in the Nike T-shirt, known as Lingaraju. SThe sn of flower farmers in the Hassan district of Karnataka, he lost his job as a cook in Bangalore when he was arrested on suspicion of joining the jewellery robbery. He decided not to tell his relatives, so he gets no visitors. Now labelled prisoner number 5829, he is trying to convince a magistrate to restore his freedom.
That has not worked so far. But Lingaraju is counting on videoconferencing. "If I have to go outside, I won't get an escort," he said. "It happens to everybody, not just me."