A study on the mental illness and intellectual disability among death row prisoners has shown that over 62 per cent had at least one mental illness, half of them contemplated suicide in jail and experienced adverse childhood and traumatic life experiences.
Project 39A, a criminal justice program at the National Law University Delhi, conducted a study on 88 death row prisoners, three female and 85 male, and their families across Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Karnataka, Kerala, and Madhya Pradesh.
The findings of the study titled “Deathworthy: A Mental Health Perspective of the Death Penalty” presented empirical data on mental illness and intellectual disability among death row prisoners in India and the psychological consequences of living on death row.
The report, which was released after five years of research, also established correlations between conditions of incarceration and ill-health.
The report stated that it was found that an “overwhelming” majority of death row prisoners interviewed — 62.2 per cent, had a mental illness and 11 per cent had an intellectual disability.
This proportion is overwhelmingly higher than the proportion in the community population, it said.
51 death row prisoners (62.2 per cent) were diagnosed with at least one mental illness. 35.3 per cent were diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MMD), 22.6 per cent were diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and 6.8 per cent screened positive for psychosis, the report said.
Speaking at a panel discussion organized to mark the release of the report, Justice S Muralidhar, Chief Justice of Orissa High Court, said that sentencing should be a socio-legal exercise and take into account a 360 degree understanding of the victim’s perspective, the victim’s family perspective, history and the wider impact of the society at large.
“This report tries to show us that even the accused are, in a way, victims,” he further said.
The study showed that 19 out of the 88 prisoners who were interviewed were ultimately acquitted and the sentence of 33 prisoners was 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, Maitreyi Misra, the lead author of the study, stated in the report.
The report added, “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.”
Almost 9 out of 83 death row prisoners were diagnosed with intellectual disability. Over 75 percent of prisoners were found to have deficits in intellectual functioning.
While international law prohibits the imposition of the death sentence on persons with mental disabilities, in the case of these nine prisoners, their disability was not even brought to the attention of the courts, Misra added.
Besides this, 34 death row prisoners, over 50 per cent, out of the 63 prisoners who volunteered information on suicidal behaviour and ideation spoke about contemplating suicide at least once in prison.
According to the report, one man spent 14 years on death row in solitary confinement and reported having heard voices, seen a goddess, and even attempted to kill himself.
Eight prisoners had attempted suicide in prison, the study stated, adding that these numbers and proportions are alarmingly high when compared to the proportion of those at high risk of suicide among the general prison population and in the community.
The study also showed that the death row prisoners suffered from childhood abuse, neglect and disturbed family environments.
Among the 88 prisoners interviewed, the cascading effect of poverty was clear. 46 prisoners were physically or verbally abused as children, 64 were neglected, and 73 prisoners grew up in disturbed family environments. 46 prisoners had less than 10 years of education, 28 had early onset of substance abuse. 73 prisoners had experienced three or more adverse experiences, the report finds.
Over 56 prisoners experienced three or more potentially traumatic experiences like natural disasters, physical abuse, accidents, the report said, adding that prisoners who were diagnosed with a current episode of MDD reported experiencing more traumatic life events than those who were not diagnosed.
It further stated that death row prisoners are treated as a separate class of prisoners and, more often than not, the violence and alienation are directly linked to their belonging to this separate class — the living dead.
It stated that the families of death row prisoners go through this punishment as well, as they are assumed to be guilty by association and are left behind to face the wrath and collective condemnation of society.
Not knowing whether their loved one is going to live or die, families deal with this ‘ambiguous loss’ without being able to grieve openly because who, after all, would mourn the loss of a death row prisoner. Their ‘disenfranchised grief’ remains unexpressed and unvalidated, the report added.