How Waiting for Death Takes the Life Out of Living

The Death Penalty India Report has recorded the experiences of violence, fear and loneliness faced by death row prisoners, often incarcerated for years on end.

New Delhi: “Mayur recounted that he was stripped and tied on a table when a snake was let loose in the room. Apart from this, the police clipped his penis and passed electric currents through it.”

“Amaan was sentenced to death in a high profile sexual violence case. In police remand, Amaan was stripped and beaten up with a belt and bamboo stick. His face and genitals were electrocuted, causing excessive bleeding. The police also forcefully collected his semen sample and made him sign 10 to 15 blank sheets of paper.”

These are just examples of the countless stories collected by researchers from the National Law University, compiled in the Death Penalty India Report, released here on May 6. What is it like, then, to live on death row?

Duration of incarceration

Living on death row and the angst that comes with it has been described by prisoners as a fate close to death, with a constant sense of fear and dread. Among the mercy-rejected prisoners currently on death row, there is one who has been incarcerated for 25 years already, five who have been on death row for more than 20 years, 13 others who have spent more than 10 years incarcerated. Similarly for mercy-pending prisoners, there are numerous individuals who have been on death row for more than 10 years, and four who have been there for more than 20.

The median amount of time spent on death row for prisoners whose appeals were pending in the Supreme Court was six years, seven months. There were a total of 52 prisoners in this category. Here is a state-wise distribution of the median duration of incarceration of prisoners with their appeals pending in the Supreme Court:

Source: Death Penalty India Report, Volume I

Source: Death Penalty India Report, Volume I

Prisoners on death row, then, face the rigours of incarceration for years on end. Their punishment is not limited to death itself, but a life filled with uncertainty, violence, mental problems, loneliness and abandonment.

Differential treatment

Even within prisons, being sentenced to death makes you different from everyone else, the report suggests. Every death sentence conviction from a trial has to be confirmed by a high court, and the study shows that in a vast majority of cases the sentence is not, in fact confirmed. Yet, prisoners and even their families are treated differently from the second the trial court passes its judgment.

There is no legal ground for this differential treatment. A five-judge bench in Sunil Batra vs Delhi Administration & Ors held that a prisoner sentenced to death is entitled to be treated in a manner similar to other prisoners. Differential treatment of any kind is only allowed after a death sentence has been completely confirmed and cannot be annulled by any process.

In spite of this, prisoners on death row are treated differently right from their initial conviction, the study has found. Some prisons in states like Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka, Jharkhand and Bihar allow no interaction between death row prisoners and others in the prison. In these cases, prisoners sentenced to death are only surrounded by others facing a similar fate.

  • “Ayananka Singh shared his experience of being confined in a single cell within a death barrack. Only one other prisoner, Burhan, is confined within the same barrack in a different cell. Unlike other prisoners they are not permitted to leave their barracks and walk in common areas in the prison. They are forced to interact only with each other.”
  • “Birsa is lodged in a death barrack of a central prison with four other prisoners with his case pending in the high court. He has been convicted in a case involving multiple murders. Birsa said he strongly believed in Lord Shiva. With tremendous sadness and disappointment, he spoke about the time when a procession had been organised in the prison on the day of Shivratri, but the prisoners in the death barrack were not permitted to participate. He recollected how some of the prisoners in the barrack had gathered around a small hole to catch a glimpse of the procession as it went past their barrack.”

It has been argued that solitary confinement is against the fundamental rights of prisoners. Solitary confinement means that a prisoner is removed from the sight of and communication with other prisoners. Though it is permissible under section 73 of the IPC (even then for a maximum of three months and only 14 days at a time), only a court of law can send a prisoner to solitary confinement, not prison authorities.

  • “Jayakanthan, on walking into the room to meet us, blinked continuously for the first few minutes. He explained that he was not accustomed to so much light as he was kept in solitary confinement with no source of sunlight. He ate in his cell and was allowed to come out only for 20 minutes per day. He had been in solitary confinement since 2013 and had no human contact since, except an occasional conversation with a guard outside his cell.”

Reform and rehabilitation

One of the conditions for sentencing someone to death, as laid out under Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab, is that the convict should be beyond possible reform. Education and vocational training plays a major role in possible reform and rehabilitation of prisoners, the Model Prison Manual 2003 has recognised.

Almost one-fourth of the prisoners sentenced to death have never been to school, the project has found. Another 9.6% never went beyond primary school. Several prisoners interviewed for the project talked about how prison was their first opportunity to study.

“Datta was only 20 years old when he was arrested for the rape and murder of a minor girl. Datta had never been to school, like everyone else in his family. His family belonged to a Scheduled Tribe. Currently, Datta is the youngest prisoner in the barrack he shares with older prisoners, as there are no separate barracks for young adults. Datta spends his time in prison studying, going to school at 8 am every morning. Datta is very proud of how much he has learnt in prison – he can now read in Hindi, and stated with immense satisfaction that he can now write his own name.”

The possibility of reform and rehabilitation through education was not an opportunity all death row prisoners had, the report says. Some prisons deny death row prisoners access to educational facilities, apparently using the logic that since they are to die anyway education is of no use to them. This goes against the Supreme Court judgment that death row prisoners cannot be treated differently until their sentence is finally executable.

“Sentenced to death for a terror offence, Moinuddin was very keen to pursue an undergraduate degree in political science. Although he began the course in 2007, while his case was pending in the trial court, his studies were put to a halt by prison authorities when he was transferred to a central prison after being sentenced to death. He requested the jailor and the inspector general to allow him to study, but to no avail.”

Similarly with work and vocational training, prisons across states in India did not allow death row prisoners to work from the minute they were convicted in a trial court. Though this goes against the Sunil Batra judgment, it is an extremely common practice – even making its way in as a rule in the Bihar Prison Manual 2012.

“Prisoners also want to work in prison in order to earn money to buy essentials like toothpaste and soap from the prison store, which authorities did not provide. Left with no alternative, prisoners who received no money from their families and were not permitted to work resort to working for other prisoners privately.

“Madhukar, sentenced to death for dacoity with murder, earns money in prison by washing the clothes of other inmates. Belonging to an extremely poor SC family, Madhukar had never been to school and worked as a casual labourer from a young age. He was 18-19 years old at the time of his arrest, and both of his parents passed away while he was in prison.”

Violence against prisoners

Even apart from the living conditions in prison and on death row, violence inflicted on prisoners was a repeated narrative heard by the researchers. This violence is inflicted both by prison authorities and fellow prisoners. According to the study, prisoners sentenced to death for sexual offences and terror offences are more like to be vulnerable to violence.

  • “Asad, a prisoner sentenced to death for a high-profile terror offence, was attacked with a blade while his case was before the trial court, making a deep cut behind his ear. He continued to be subject to acts of violence from his co-prisoners as his case progressed through the judicial system. Asad was attacked five times in the 13 years of his incarceration.”
  • “Satyanarayan, sentenced to death for rape and murder in a case that attracted a lot of attention in the state, was beaten up very often when he was initially sent to prison after his arrest. Even after two years and 10 months of incarceration, the treatment meted out to him by other prisoners continues to be the same. When he goes to the bathroom, it is quite common that two prisoners accost him and physically attack him, only to blame him for the altercation. There have also been multiple instances of prisoners throwing mud in his rice, making his food inedible.”

Accounts of violence came along with concerns of complicity of the prison staff and the lack of action even after repeated complaints. In several instances, there was also violence directly inflicted by the prison staff themselves.

  • “Rachit, a prisoner sentenced to death for murder, described in detail the custodial violence he faced while incarcerated in a central prison. On the first day after his arrest, he and his co-accused were stripped to their underwear and made to walk around the prison compound. The next day, they were stripped again, made to parade around and then made to sit on their haunches while being beaten. After Rachit and his co-accused lost consciousness due to the assault, they were thrown into a water tank to regain consciousness before the beating was resumed.”
  • “Rajul, a prisoner accused of rape, kidnapping and murder was severely beaten by both other prisoners and authorities due to the rape charges against him, in spite of being cleared of the rape charge by the trial court. They also repeated tugged at the beard he had maintained for being a practising Muslim.”

Not all prisoners faced only negative experiences in jail. Some also spoke of the bond that built within the barracks and the support they got from each other, others talked about the helpful authorities they had encountered who treated them with respect.

Mental health of prisoners

The issue of mental health in India still remains largely stigmatised, and awareness around it continues to be very low.

Intuitively, the group conducting the death penalty project thought that long durations of incarceration along with the living conditions in prisons would have an impact on the mental health of prisoners. This was corroborated by their research, where they came across several prisoners possibly suffering from mental illness and various issues around mental health.

  • “Ainesh Singh was convicted and sentenced to death under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act 1987. His wife, Simran revealed that after 10 years of imprisonment it became clear that his mental health was rapidly deteriorating. He had been kept in solitary confinement during this long period of incarceration. Each time she met him, he seemed increasingly quiet and withdrawn. Five years after he began showing signs of mental illness, Ainesh was permanently shifted to a mental health facility for treatment.”
  • “Devnath, imprisoned since 2001, has been receiving treatment for his mental illness without a proper diagnosis. According to him, he takes 15 pills every morning and 18 pills at night, but has no idea what these pills are for. He has frequent memory lapses cannot function properly without the pills. His head starts to ache, and he feels like banging his head against a wall.”
  • “Chiranjiv, a prisoner sentenced to death in 2013 for the rape and murder of a minor, claimed that he was a juvenile at the time of the incident. It must be noted that this aspect was not noted by the trial court in its judgment and neither is it known if his lawyer raised it. During his interview, he said that he was hopeful that his sentence would be commuted by the high court, and otherwise he was ready to go to every forum available to him, including the Supreme Court, the governor and the president. More than anything, he longed to be with his family. Chiranjiv committed suicide a few months after we met him. He was then 20 years old.”

Waiting for death

In addition to all the other factors that make prison life extremely difficult for prisoners sentenced to death is constant worry about when the execution will finally be carried out. Given the long processes and waiting periods, anxiety and fear increased with time for the prisoners interviewed by the study.

  • “Baburao Moré, imprisoned for 11 years and waiting for a decision on his mercy petition, wanted to be executed immediately as he felt he was ‘half-dead’ already.”
  • “Amarpreet, a prisoner whose mercy petition had been rejected at the time when we interviewed her, described that she felt as if there was always a rope hanging above her head. She was unable to sleep at night and every time the gate opened she thought that the authorities had come to take her away for execution. She felt most apprehensive in the early morning hours, the preferred time for executions. She frequently had nightmare about being slaughtered at a butcher’s shop. Amarpreet has written a letter to the president, asking that she be hanged immediately because she could not bare the ‘agony of waiting’.”
  • “Aamod Singh was terrified when he walked into the room for a conversation with us. Though his case was pending in the high court, he had been told by some prisoners that he was being taken to be executed. His hands were trembling violently and he kept muttering that he would be hanged. Being acutely alienated from the criminal justice process, he was unaware that he could not be hanged at that stage.”
  • “The were also instances wherein prison officials showed the gallows to the prisoners so as to aggravate their fear. Aamer revealed that each prisoner sentenced to death in his prison was shown the gallows by the chief warden when they first arrived. He felt this was to ‘cause mental agony and fill the prisoners with dread’.”

Impact on families

The experience of family members in the outside world is very different from that of the prisoners. Their lives are deeply affected by the fact that they have a loved one on death row, though their experiences are talked about even less than those of the prisoners themselves. On most occasions, cases where the accused is sentenced to death become big news, at least in the locality where they occurred if not nationally. The crimes then create a range of societal reactions towards the family – social stigma, economic boycott, sometimes even outright violence. But then there are cases where a community comes together to support the family of a convict.

There are also families that feel an intense shame because of their association with the prisoner and so the crime, leading to several cases of complete abandonment of the prisoner. Some families, the study reports, had even built completely new lives for themselves after the incident and refused to even mention the prisoner.

  • “Ranjay’s trial lasted for just three months before he was sentenced to death for murdering a one-year-old child by firing a country-made pistol. The trial court and high court rejected Ranjay’s claim that it was an accident under the influence of alcohol. Shivmani, Ranjay’s wife, had to sell most of her belongings to pay for Ranjay’s legal assistance. Two of her children had to be withdrawn from school. They were driven away from their locality due to threats from relatives of the victim. Their house was vandalised, and she was explicitly told that her children would be harmed if they returned. Everywhere they moved, the owner would evict them as soon as they found out about the case. Shivmani and her children have moved houses 18 times after the incident.”
  • “Ramanand was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of two adult women. His wife, Chandini, has severed all ties with him. Neither Chandini nor anybody else from the family has visited Ramanand in the six years since his arrest. The decision of Ramanand’s family to severe ties with him seems to be a combination of extreme shame, anger and disappointment along with the fear of angering the community if they were seen to be supporting him.”


Names of prisoners and their families have been changed for anonymity  More information on the report and the Centre on the Death Penalty is available here