INDIA: DEATH ROW TAKES HUGE MENTAL TOLL ON PRISONERS, REVEALS REPORT
October 21, 2021:
The long incarceration and time spent agonising over the death penalty takes a heavy toll on prisoners who suffer from psychiatric illnesses and intellectual disability, according to a new study conducted in India. (Sources: Project 39A, TNN, 21/10/2021)
The study conducted by Project 39A, a criminal justice program at the National Law University Delhi, also found that a majority of death row prisoners are from a disturbed family environment and one in two suffered physical or verbal abuse as children.
The researchers interviewed 88 death row prisoners (3 female, 85 male) and their families across five states including Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Karnataka, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh.
The study found that 51 death row prisoners (62.2%) were diagnosed with at least one mental illness.
Project 39A executive director Anup Surendranath calls the theoretical approaches to punishment flawed. “At the core of the conversation around ‘blameworthiness’ is the unshakeable assumption that individuals act in a vacuum. However, there is now extensive research to show that this assumption is necessarily false and that individual actions are influenced by a whole host of factors involving social contexts, personal histories, psychological and developmental experiences etc.”
The report ‘Deathworthy: A Mental Health Perspective of the Death Penalty’ -- released on 21 October 2021 -- says of the 88 prisoners interviewed, 35% were diagnosed with major depressive disorder (the proportion of prisoners with MDD is approximately 11 times higher than that in the community population), 22% were diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, 20% suffered from substance use disorder and 6% screened for psychosis. Nine out of 83 prisoners were diagnosed with intellectual disability.
The Supreme Court has often considered the emotional and mental agony of living with the uncertainty of the death sentence, as a factor in commuting the sentence after the rejection of mercy petition by the President but researchers say the torture for the prisoner begins as soon as he is sentenced to death.
The study’s lead author Maitreyi Misra said, “The trauma of being sentenced to death, the many missteps of the death penalty (such as out of turn issuance of death warrants), the worry about the families are all part of this agony. Not being allowed to work or engage in activities that may help divert their attention, many prisoners referred to themselves as the living dead, many wanted to be hanged as a way to end their misery rather than continue living with their impending yet uncertain death.”
As Purab, a prisoner, told researchers, “Killing once is better than dying everyday, either leave me or just kill me. This death sentence is like slow poison, it would be better if it could be had in one gulp.”
The study also found that families of death row prisoners were not just faced with the ‘ambiguous loss’ of not knowing when and if their loved ones will die and their ‘disenfranchised grief’ but also forced to hide their identity in certain cases and suffer loss of livelihood and poor health.
Of the 88 prisoners who were interviewed, 19 were ultimately acquitted and the sentence of 33 prisoners were commuted to various terms of life imprisonment. 13 out of the 19 prisoners who are now acquitted were diagnosed with at least one mental illness, three had attempted suicide in prison.
Of the 30 prisoners diagnosed with depression, 17 are now no more on death row.
Of the 34 prisoners who had been at risk of suicide, 20 are not on death row anymore. Half of those who were actively contemplating suicide around the time of the interview are not on death row anymore.