The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) counts the number of suicides in the country and in prisons every year. It looks at suicide as an unnatural death, where the desire to die comes from the person themselves and there is a reason for ending life. We are made to understand that on November 17, Khalak Singh Panchal, a prisoner on death row in Yerwada Central Prison, Pune, had a reason for ending his life and that this ‘desire to die’ originated within him. News reports quote the jail superintendent as saying that he “allegedly” hung himself using a bed sheet in a “separate cell”.
What the newspapers fail to report, however, is the state of affairs in the prison. Panchal’s death raises serious questions about the conditions of incarceration of death row inmates, as well as of prisons conditions in general. I have met many prisoners in various prisons in different states as a part of my work as a lawyer. Every visit to a prison is distressing; the conditions in which prisoners, particularly those on death row, are confined are nothing short of torturous.
Prisoners on death row in Pune are kept isolated in solitary cells for almost 17 hours every day, are not allowed to work, attend educational classes or meet other prisoners.
The legal basis cited for this segregation is usually Section 30 of the Prisons Act, 1894 and the corresponding rules in the state jail manual, which is the prison officials’ bible. However, the laws providing for the segregation of death row convicts have repeatedly been deprecated by the Supreme Court. In Sunil Batra v Delhi Admin (1978), the Supreme Court expressly held that death row convicts cannot be segregated and that they are “entitled to the amenities of ordinary inmates in the prison like games, books, newspapers, reasonably good food, the right to expression, artistic or other, and normal clothing and bed.”
The effect of solitary confinement, or “segregation” as the officials in Pune might call it, is to directly impinge on the prisoner’s right to life guaranteed under article 21 of the constitution. In Ajay Kumar Pal v. Union of India (2014) the Supreme Court held that a convict sentenced to death could not be “segregated” till her mercy petition to the president was disposed of. Segregating a prisoner before that would be a “complete transgression of the right under Article 21…causing incalculable harm” to the prisoner.
Solitary confinement in the Pune jail is exacerbated archaic rules that are mindlessly applied by the prison administration. Very often, family or friends of prisoners are not allowed to meet them for reasons which include a failure to prove a blood relationship with the inmate. Lunch is eaten at 11 am and dinner is over by 5:30 pm, after which the inmates are locked up for more than 11 hours.
The meeting with relatives or lawyers (called mulakaat) take places over the phone in a confined space with glass partitions and iron bars separating the prisoner, eliminating even the slightest possibility of human contact. The mulakaat timings are also very limited, with each mulakaat lasting less than ten minutes. Given these constraints, meetings are stressful and emotionally charged. With more than ten family meetings happening simultaneously, the jarring cacophony in the mulakaat room makes most attempts at a meaningful conversation futile.
The prison’s practice of segregating convicts sentenced to death also debars them from work and educational opportunities. According to NCRB prison statistics, about 10,6158 inmates (more than 25% of all prisoners) received some form of education in prison in 2015. The Maharashtra prison manual also mandates that “between the hour of 7 to 8 p.m. literacy classes shall be conducted”. However, since Panchal was sentenced to death, it is quite probable that he was sequestered into his solitary cell by 5:30 pm. It was around 8 pm that he is reported to have died.
The Death Penalty India Report of the National Law University Delhi shows that 74.1% of the prisoners sentenced to death in India between 2000-2013 are economically vulnerable (measured according to their occupation and landholding). Panchal, sentenced after the period of study of the report, was stated to be a contract labourer.
The lack of financial resources compounds the agony of prisoners. One cannot buy much from the canteen in prison, but sometimes even essentials like soap or stationery is denied by poverty or, often times, the prison administration. Numerous money orders for prisoners have been returned by prison officials on the ground that they were not sent by blood relatives of the prisoner. A prisoner once asked me, “My parents died years ago, does that mean I can never receive money?” The lack of money has crippling consequences, as it completely isolates the prisoner. One cannot write anything as even a sheet of paper costs 50 paise. Even if one manages paper, sending a letter to one’s lawyer, say, is still impossible because you need money for stamps. I recall standing outside Yerwada jail for hours trying to give a couple of postal stamps to a prisoner. I was not allowed to. There were no reasons given, apart from a blind adherence to the jail manual which permits the superintendent to exercise discretion to make the prison regulations more humane. In the end, I was left holding nothing but the postal stamps I intended to give.
This complete isolation and deprivation is a recipe for mental health disasters. However, virtually no mental health professionals or services are provided. The 2015 NCRB report shows that medical staff in Maharashtra was only 38.27% of the sanctioned strength. Out of eight sanctioned positions for a psychologist or psychiatrist in Maharashtra, only one is filled. This means one person is to address the mental health issues of almost 30,000 prisoners of Maharashtra. While prisons sometimes supplement this with visiting psychiatrists, that is just not sufficient as prisoners often require long-term observation to determine the status of their mental health.
There is significant understaffing across prisons in the country. The bureaucratic apathy towards this is evident, as the NCRB in its report comments that “the actual strength of the jail staff posted against the sanctioned strength is quite satisfactory”. It only had issues with states and union territories which were below the national average of 66.1% of posts filled. Maharashtra had only 78.5% of the sanctioned jail staff in 2015. This results in a severe strain on the prison staff, leading to unnecessary resort to punishments and other quick-fix solutions.
The UN Human Rights Committee in Lantsova v. Russia (2002) held that “it is incumbent on States to ensure the right of life of detainees” and that by “by arresting and detaining individuals takes the responsibility to care for their life. It is up to the State party by organizing its detention facilities to know about the state of health of the detainees as far as may be reasonably expected.”
Given the deplorable conditions in which death row prisoners are kept, absence of mental health facilities is a gross violation of India’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the Indian constitution. This is despite the state knowing that several suicides occur every year in prisons all over the country, including Maharashtra. The suicide rates in prison are almost twice that of the national average. The national suicide rate for 2014 was 10.6 per 1,00,000 people, while that for prisons in that year was 22.45.
Given the harrowing conditions in which death row prisoners are kept, one wonders if the ‘desire to die’ originated within. While the specifics of the cause of death of Panchal are yet emerge, the impact his segregation and conditions of detention had on him can never be ascertained or undone. In Ajay Kumar Pal’s case, the Supreme Court thought it “proper to reach out and grant solace” to the prisoner. Unfortunately, such steps are now impossible as Panchal becomes another statistic.
Himanshu Agarwal is a litigation associate at the Centre on the Death Penalty, National Law University Delhi.