More Than 60% Death Row Prisoners Are Living With a Mental Health Disorder: Study


Dec 6, 2021


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A recent survey found more than 60% of individuals on death row in India are living with mental disorders, highlighting the correlations between death sentences and mental illness of prisoners.

Prepared by Project 39A, an initiative by the National Law University, Delhi, the Deathworthy Report evaluated the mental health of 82 prisoners on death row. Of them, 51 suffered from, at least, one mental health disorder, and as many as 63 reported dealing with suicidal thoughts. One individual interviewed by the researchers described himself as “a cemetery… a walking dead body.”

The report identified denial of food and repeated physical and psychological torture in prison as major contributors to the worsening mental health. “They attack our honor, they touch our private parts. They beat and humiliate you. The searching of the ward is physical and psychological torture. They throw away ironed clothes, they throw away the bed and step on it. They tore my mosquito net which was in the cell where I was staying. They beat me too,” another prisoner on death row noted.

“The proportion of persons with mental illness and intellectual disability on death row is overwhelmingly higher than the proportions in the community population,” the researchers noted in the report.

However, there appears to be very little research on how prison policies can impact the mental health of inmates. In October this year, relatives of inmates in Maharashtra’s jails requested authorities to allow prisoners to talk to their kin on phones — a facility that was introduced during the pandemic — but was eventually withdrawn as social distancing protocols were eased even as the pandemic continues to rage on. But given that many people still can’t travel to meet their family members in prison, some of whom are in solitary confinement, the request was raised.

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Many inmates were also found to have dealt with past life trauma — compounding their mental health concerns. 73% of the prisoners had experienced childhood neglect, 65% with physical assault, 50% with childhood abuse, 27% underwent unwanted sexual experiences, and 13% witnessed sudden, violent deaths while growing up.

“There is persistent and often intergenerational social and structural exclusion, deprivation, and violence that an overwhelming majority of the prisoners interviewed found themselves in since childhood,” the report noted.

The researchers referred to a United Nations General Assembly resolution urging countries to not impose the death penalty on individuals living with mental illnesses. Moreover, “in [a 2014 judgment], the Supreme Court noted that mental illness should warrant the commutation of death sentence to life imprisonment… However, the courts do not consider mental illness as an extenuating factor while imposing the punishment,” an article on The Quint notes.

Jennifer Gonzalez, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center, explained that on the one hand, links are drawn between mental illnesses and criminal behavior; on the other, prison systems do hardly anything to investigate or treat inmates’ mental illnesses — instead, they exacerbate the conditions.

Further, “it is well-settled law that the possibility of reformation and rehabilitation of the convict is an important factor, which has to be taken into account as a mitigating circumstance before sentencing him to death,” a recent judgment by the Supreme Court states.

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Yet, “India aggressively imposes death sentences [though it] hardly ever executes anyone,” reads an article in the New York Times. It cites a 2016 report that found only four people were executed between 2000 and 2014 even though 1,810 death sentences were issued during the period.

As the present study points out, the longer one spends waiting to learn their fate, the more their mental health became — the adding “the prolonged uncertainty” results in “a profound psychological effect.” The 2016 report had highlighted the “median wait for a ruling on their appeal” — to find out whether they are truly going to be executed — as six and a half years. One individual, in fact, had to spend more than two decades on death row in anticipation of their potential execution.

“Why aren’t we looking at what the prisoners are going through? Maybe they aren’t being finally made to face the hangman, but what about the years they spent on death row, the trauma they and their families faced?” an article on The Wire states

Citing the example of Norway’s prison systems, an article by the American Psychological Association notes that the “positive prison culture” in the country — where inmates are allowed freedom of movement on the premises, access to rehabilitation programs, and “[prison] officers are more like social workers who get to know inmates rather than enforcing punishments” — lowers the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend.

Interestingly, the 2014 judgment, which recommended converting death sentences to life imprisonment if an inmate is living with a mental illness, also proposed mental health interventions for inmates on death row. “We have seen that in some cases, death-row prisoners lost their mental balance on account of prolonged anxiety and suffering experienced on death row,” Justice P. Sathasivam, the then Chief Justice of India, had ruled. “There should, therefore, be regular mental health evaluation of all death row convicts and appropriate medical care should be given to those in need.”


Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.


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