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Insights into Editorial: Living on death row with illness



Prisoners are a neglected group in India. Indian prisons are traditionally overcrowded spaces, with little attention paid to concerns about health, comfort or privacy.

Those problems get even worse when talking about prisoners on the death row.

Deemed to not be worthy of living in the society, such prisoners often receive inhumane treatment that entirely ignores their needs.



Recently, Deathworthy: A Mental Health Perspective of the Death Penalty, an important report by Project 39A, based at the National Law University, Delhi, was published.

It explores the mental health concerns of death row prisoners, the intellectual disabilities they have, and the psychological impact of being on death row.

India remains among the 55 retentionist countries where the death penalty is still handed down for certain crimes.

Data on how many death row prisoners have mental health conditions and/or intellectual disabilities are hard to come by (because the prisoners are not specifically assessed for it) and so this report helps to improve our understanding of this much-neglected topic.


General information about Death penalty:

  1. Capital punishment, also called the death penalty, is the execution of an offender sentenced to death after conviction by a court of law of a criminal offence.
  2. It is the highest penalty awardable to an accused. Generally, it is awarded in extremely severe cases of murder, rapes, treason etc.
  3. The death penalty is seen as the most suitable punishment and effective deterrent for the worst crimes. Those who oppose it, however, see it as inhumane.
  4. Thus, the morality of the death penalty is debatable and many criminologists and socialists all across the globe, have been long demanding abolition of the death penalty.


However, Mental Health of prisoner before Death Penalty:

A Mental Health Perspective of the Death Penalty presents 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 finds that an overwhelming majority of death row prisoners interviewed (62.2%) had a mental illness and 11% had intellectual disability.

One of the biggest groups that suffer the most, in that sense, are the children. Children have to often relocate, they have to stop going to school, they have to stay inside the house for months together till the story dies own.

Otherwise, they might be the subject of that fury. And in some cases, they’re not even told about the sentence.

The death penalty isn’t been restricted to that one individual. It has intergenerational impact on children and their future prospects


No right to fair trial to Mentally disable prisoners:

  1. Worryingly, nearly 11% of the recent death row prisoners were diagnosed with intellectual disabilities and most of them had deficits in intellectual functioning.
  2. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights calls upon countries “not to impose the death penalty on a person suffering from any form of mental disorder or to execute any such person”.
  3. Yet, the laws of most countries don’t explicitly prohibit this. Mental illness and intellectual disabilities complicate the death penalty.
  4. Persons with mental illness and intellectual disabilities may not be able to instruct their lawyers to mount a robust defence, thus jeopardising the right to a fair trial enshrined in our Constitution.
  5. The ‘insanity defence’ in the Indian Penal Code sets such a high barrier that it can’t be met in most cases.
  6. Even when there is an obvious history of mental illness, courts in India are usually unwilling to consider the plea of insanity by defence lawyers.
  7. In Shatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India (2014), the Supreme Court had said that mental illness should warrant the commutation of death sentence to life imprisonment.
  8. Despite this, courts do not consider mental illness as a mitigating factor when imposing punishment.
  9. The report also highlights another important and neglected aspect of mental illness: the social determinants of mental illness.
  10. Mental illness is more common among the poor and those with mental illness are more likely to end up in poverty.
  11. Those who have experienced childhood abuse are significantly more likely to experience mental illness in adulthood than those who did not.
  12. The report provides an insight into the poverty, abuse, neglect and violence that mark the overwhelming majority of death row prisoners with mental illness.
  13. It sheds light on the stigma, social ostracisation and grief of families of those sentenced to death.


Way Ahead: Adopting a psycho-social approach:

The authors argue that courts should take a psycho-social approach towards sentence mitigation using the framework recommended by the Supreme Court in Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab (1980).

The apex court had laid down guidelines that courts should take into consideration before imposing the death penalty.

These include mental health issues such as “extreme mental or emotional disturbance” at the time of the incident and acting under “duress”.

A psycho-social approach will allow courts to take into account the life history of an individual and relate this to the mental state of the individual.



The report says, “We have sentenced to death people, who, due to the nature of their disability, might very well be exempt from the death penalty altogether.”

Society, especially those in the criminal justice system, including legal and medical professionals, should mull over this.

Mental illness is not a crime. Those with mental illness are vulnerable to violation of their rights.

We need to ask ourselves what purpose is served by executing people who have a mental illness or an intellectual disability. This report, one hopes, will trigger these discussions.