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Home / Politics / Policy /  Custodial suicides: Are India’s prison inmates safe?

New Delhi: The only suspect in the murder of an Infosys software engineer in June allegedly committed suicide by biting into a live electric wire inside the Puzhal Central Prison in Chennai. P. Ramkumar was arrested less than a month after the murder of techie S. Swathi.

When he committed “suicide", Ramkumar was placed in the dispensary ward of Prison Block II, a high-security zone in the jail considered one of Chennai’s modern prisons. Ramkumar’s suicide is not an isolated incident. In fact, suicide is the biggest reason for custodial deaths in India, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau in August. Out of 97 custodial death cases or disappearance from police custody in 2015, 33 were attributed to suicide, the report said. Eleven died of prior illnesses and only nine died of natural reasons across the country. On October 4, one of the accused in the 2015 Dadri lynching case was found dead in police custody. The 21- year-old died of kidney and respiratory failure at a Delhi hospital on Tuesday evening. His family, however, alleged he was kept in a separate cell and assaulted on September 30 while he was in judicial custody.

The idea of a prison is obviously not comforting, but the situation of Indian prisons is particularly worrying. During 2007-2011, the average prison population in India was 3,76,000 (with minimum as 3,69,000 and 2 maximum as 3,84,700). “The overall average death rate in prison is 375 whereas the average suicidal death rate is 16.9. The overall average suicide rate among general public (for the year 2007-2011) is 11 whereas average suicide rate in prison is 16.9. That means, propensity to commit suicide in prison is almost one and half times more than normal conditions," according to a 2014 NHRC report, Suicide in Prison, prevention strategy and implication from human rights and legal points of view.

In March 2013, Delhi gang-rape prime accused Ram Singh committed suicide by hanging himself in Tihar Jail. This year, another accused in the same case, attempted suicide. All were arrested hours after the crime. As more and more details from the case started unravelling, Ram Singh and other co-accused started facing the ire of fellow inmates in Tihar Central Jail—another concern particularly with high profile cases or cases of sexual abuse.

“Suicide can be made convenient in a system which places little worth for the life and liberty of prisoners; which feels vindicated when the accused, particularly if they are sex offenders or drug abusers, are wiped off the stage. In any case, the mechanisms to prove whether suicide or murder are simply not in place—CCTV cameras are not installed or not working, enquiries are not completed; so what action can be taken on anybody in an unaccountable system?," said Sana Das, coordinator, Prison Reforms Programme Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Delhi.

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According to a 2015 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India on Tihar Jail, the 10 jails under this largest complex of prisons in south Asia, as of March 2014, were grossly overcrowded with 14,209 prisoners against a capacity of 6,250. Also, the ratio between guarding staff and prisoners was between 1:11 and 1:14 against the ideal ratio of 1:6. The report observed that vacancies for the posts of welfare officer, assistant superintendent, warder and matron ranged from 31-44%. There was a shortage of doctors, paramedical, ministerial, factory and Class IV staff by 18-63% and all the posts of teaching and wireless staff were vacant.

“Most of those who commit suicide are first timers. As soon as they come to jail, they think their life has ended and that the entire world will be talking about them. In such cases, counselling can be very helpful, but where are the counsellors? These cases require individual attention. First we have a scarcity of clinical psychologists and counsellors, then even those who are there, don’t want to come to the jail. No one likes to mix with the prisoners," said Sunil Gupta, an expert on prisons administration and former Tihar PRO.

Individuals are higher risk if they have more mental health needs, live in specialized housing, have recently moved to a new cell, are younger. “Although research has not sufficiently addressed the psychosocial process of prison suicide, court decisions and developing national standards have, to a degree, filled the void by advocating the view that suicide is a process that typically displays observable signs of maladaptive coping and suicidal intention. If identified in time, the process can be reversed or prevented in most cases," according to the NHRC report.

Ramkumar had allegedly attempted suicide earlier as well by slitting his throat at the time of his arrest, which means he was already “vulnerable" and needed close watch. He is believed to have pulled out the live wire from a switchboard before biting into it. Prison authorities say he was under continuous watch by warders, and that he had been given psychological counselling as well. However, the CCTV cameras installed did not cover that particular area where he committed suicide.

When talking about prison reforms, groups like CHRI point to the need of identifying vulnerability right at the time of entry (vulnerable due to their mental-emotional state; their offence; their chances of being convicted); increasing the resource pool to provide counselling upon entry, close watch by jail staff on prisoners vulnerable to bullying, harassment and torture by inmates; and providing sustained access to the outside world.

Inside the prison, a day typically stretches out for decades. It is an everyday struggle against the sameness of the time ahead. Apart from the poor prison conditions, there is not just loss of liberty; there is a fear of stigma and possible conviction; despair of losing all relations.

Suicide does occur but according to a 2008 Asian Centre For Human Rights report Torture in India, a state of denial, “ACHR’s examination of a number cases suggests that the causes of death are often cause for concern, particularly over regular allegation, by the family of the use of torture; torture that either impacted on the victims actions or resulted in death that was subsequently covered up."

R. Sankarasubbu, counsel in the Ramkumar case, says things are not as simple as they seem. “Even if we believe it was suicide, why were these objects accessible to the prisoner? Apart from this, why was the undertrial put in this high security zone and segregated like this? It is clear that he was murdered to bury the case and to put under wraps the details of the actual murderer," said the advocate.

Where from did Ramkumar get access to the live wire, why was he segregated, was it really a suicide or a murder, are answers that might be out later – might because post mortems do not get done in all cases of death, enquiries are not completed, and enquiry reports are not placed in public domain. But what is a concern in either case is the failure to provide safety to the inmates in such high security places.

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