Home / Politics / News /  The scourge of mental illness among prisoners on death row

Over 60% of prisoners on death row interviewed for a major study were found to be suffering from a mental illness, and the longer they spent awaiting their possible execution, the worse their mental health was likely to be.

India’s death row prisoners often belong to marginalized communities, and are highly likely to have a past marked by neglect, violence and adverse family circumstances, found ‘Deathworthy’, a study focused on the mental health of such inmates. The study, led by Maitreyi Misra, a founding member of Project 39A at the National Law University, Delhi, was released on Wednesday.

Countries that carried out executions in 2020
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Countries that carried out executions in 2020

The findings add to the debate over India’s continued use of the death penalty. As of 2020, India is one of just 55 countries to retain the death penalty, while 109 have abolished it in law, 28 in practice, and eight use it for exceptional circumstances such as war crimes, according to Amnesty International. The executions in the 2012 sexual assault and murder case made India one of 18 countries to have carried out the punishment in 2020.

The study also raises questions about the treatment meted out to prisoners while on death row: inmates reported repeated physical and sexual torture and denial of food. While noting that the prisoners’ life experiences do not excuse their crimes, the report highlights the marginalization, cognitive impairment and abuse that most suffered prior to the alleged crimes, much of which courts did not consider.

“The ‘evil criminal’ makes for an easier narrative and tugs at our want for quick solutions and vengeance," the report says.

Decades’ wait

Of an estimated 388 prisoners on death row in India as of 2016, the researchers were able to obtain permission to interview 88 from five states: Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Chhattisgarh and Delhi. The sample interviewed was representative of India’s overall population on death row, the report found.

Some of those interviewed had spent over 20 years in prison and up to 15 years on death row.

Thirty-three of the prisoners were convicted for murder, 26 for sexual offences, and just five for terror offences. As many as 51 of the 88 prisoners were less than 30 years of age at the time of the alleged crime.

Nearly six out of 10 belonged to the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes or Other Backward Classes. One in three belonged to religious minorities. Nearly one in five had never been to school. A third of them were manual casual labourers at the time of their incarceration.

India's death row inmates overwhelmingly from marginalized communities
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India's death row inmates overwhelmingly from marginalized communities

Childhood trauma

Most of the prisoners interviewed in the study reported experiencing horrific childhood abuse and traumatic life experiences. A large majority reported a disturbed family environment, 76% reported facing social adversities, 73% reported childhood neglect, and over half reported childhood abuse.

Around 65% had experienced physical assault, 47% reported they had seen the sudden death of a close relative or friend, and 27% experienced sexual assault or an unwanted sexual experience. Nearly 13% had witnessed a sudden, violent death early in life.

“Enough and more research has indicated that many of the experiences presented….—neglect and abuse during childhood, poverty, deprivation, disturbed family environment—are underlying determinants of violence later in life," the authors noted.

A majority also had underlying intellectual disabilities which, the researchers noted, could impact reasoning and judgement, as also the ability to navigate the criminal justice system.

Mental toll

In addition to the lasting toll of their own difficult lives, prolonged incarceration and being on death row appears to have caused further deterioration in the mental state of such prisoners.

In collaboration with NIMHANS, the researchers attempted to quantify the prevalence of mental illness among 82 death row prisoners. As many as 51 of them were screened positive for at least one mental disorder, with depression, anxiety and substance abuse being the most prevalent, and 63 experiencing suicidal thoughts.

One inmate said he attempted suicide after being told by a prison guard that his life was not worth living.

The report called for urgent intervention, and said the data on suicide was “cause for alarm". The sense of despair coming from solitary confinement may be somewhat avoidable: at least 60% of the prisoners have been acquitted or had their death sentences commuted since the interviews were conducted.

(Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist. Devangee Halder and Gandhar Joshi assisted with research for the piece.)

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