Last month, when Union HRD minister Smriti Irani strode out in anger from the Goa Fabindia outlet that had CCTV cams peeping at the trial room she used, reactions ranged from Twitter snigger to outright outrage. Complaint was made, crime was registered, arrests were effected - all serving to draw needed attention to the voyeuristic potential and other insidious implications of a little piece of technology that has been creeping continuously into more and more areas of everyone's lives. Aside from stores and malls, the closed circuit camera has been steadily stealing into more and more areas of day to day existence, offering itself as a panacea for a host of ills varying from shoplifting to rape. The AAP has even promised, as part of its manifesto for Delhi, to set up ten to 15 lakh cameras throughout the city in order to enhance "women's security". The march to a surveillance society seems inexorable and all this is happening without the least debate on whether it infringes on the right to privacy, which has been recognised as part of the right to life and liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.
Thus, at the same time as Smriti Irani was being violated by the peeping toms of Fabindia, the women prisoners of Byculla prison in Mumbai were forced to fight back the attempt by the jail administration to install cameras in all the living areas of the women's barracks and cells. The cameras, which were supposedly a response to the escape by five male prisoners in Nagpur, were to be put up in the areas where the women change clothes and where, with little or no fans during summer, the women are compelled to remain in minimum clothes when confined within the stone walls of the barracks, especially during the nights. Naturally not wanting to offer them up as spectacles for those who use the offices where the screens were to be set up, the women refused to allow the cameras to be set up. The authorities however remained adamant despite the inmates pointing out that they could not be made into objects of lewd interest of the prison staff. The administration only retreated after a protest hunger strike by a political prisoner, Angela Sontakke.
The whole incident only served to display the lack of any controls or regulation on the use of CCTV in all areas. In a case of hidden cameras put up in jail cells in Washington, USA, the city was sued for damages. The jail staff would watch, like some porn video, the women detenues changing and then make sexualised comments to them regarding their bodies and habits. In some Indian prisons e.g. in Gujarat, CCTV has been introduced inside barracks and such behavior by prison staff is common, but no steps have been taken to remove the cameras from living areas.
The main arguments given for introducing cameras in prisons are control on contraband, prevention of violent attacks and torture and deterrence to escape. But, since in most cases the prison staff themselves have been known to be involved in the offences, it is hardly likely that a CCTV mechanism managed by them would be effective in preventing crime. During the period when CCTV was introduced in 2008 in Arthur Road Central Prison in Mumbai the staff who normally supplied drugs would ensure that their transactions took place in the blind spots where the cameras did not reach.
Torture and corporal punishment of inmates, though forbidden by law, is a daily fact of life in prison life. Since it is perpetrated by the authorities themselves, a CCTV system offers no solution at all for this crime. An enquiry conducted under the supervision of the Bombay High Court in 2008 concluded that the authorities of Arthur Road Prison in Mumbai had used excessive force against some Muslim political prisoners resulting in several cases of grievous hurt and broken bones. Though this attack on the prisoners was conducted in full view of the CCTV cameras then in operation, the prison administration refused to hand over the record and claimed that the cameras had malfunctioned at the time of the attack. Similarly the escape of prisoners in Nagpur in 2015 was disclosed to have been done in collaboration with the jail staff itself. CCTV which is now being installed there will be manned by the same staff. The security that the system is supposed to ensure is thus a mere illusion.
Similar is the project to install CCTVs in all police stations as a means to prevent torture and custodial deaths. The Bombay High Court and Madras High Court have recently issued such directives. However a police force used to torture does not need to use the lock-up of a police station for torture. When Arun Ferreira, one of the authors of this piece, was tortured in 2007, it was done in a room in the Police Gymkhana. Even if a CCTV system were to be in place it would not have recorded the crime. Technology may provide some assistance, but it is only the pressure of civil society that can bring about real change.