• L2S + India

When the Mind becomes a Prison : A look into the mental health of Indian Prisoners

Wake up before six am. Roll call by the barracks. Ineffective ablutions and some breakfast. Spend time doing menial activities. An extremely modest lunch. Away in isolation sometimes accompanied by rats, confined to those limited walls. Fights with oneself and those around. An early dinner, and then retire to that same place which is now too small to contain all the dark thoughts that come with the night.

The same routine everyday. Unless bailed out, acquitted or till the last day of death row. This is how a day looks for an inmate in an Indian prison, for males or worse if a female.

As of 2019 according to the National Crime Records Bureau, Indian prison facilities are lodging 4.78 lakh of prisoners across all our prisons. Way more than ideal capacity, but overcrowding is just one of the many major problems faced by the ones behind the bars.

So we are talking about almost half a million people having some history or alleged history with any type of criminal activity. Here is a numerical break down for you. Among convicts, these are the proportion of inmates in a descending order, murder (51.86%), rape (7.66%), offences under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (5.73%), attempted murder (5.30%), dowry deaths (3.88%), and theft (2.84%).

We are talking about people with mental baggage of a murder, rape, theft and at times even the burden of being falsely accused for all those heinous crimes.

All of them put in an unbearably limited space, both psychically and mentally.

In this piece we will entirely focus on the latter.

Mental health of prisoners is a partially ignored worry. I call it partially because the relevant parties are fully aware about its deteriorating state, yet they fail to roll out any major initiatives to improve the situation. A number of surveys and research reports, from both domestic as well as independent foreign organisations have repeatedly highlighted the plight of mentally suffering prisoners in India. Overcrowding, various forms of violence, enforced solitude or conversely, lack of privacy, lack of meaningful activity, isolation from social networks, insecurity about future prospects (work, relationships, etc), and inadequate health services, especially mental health services are factors that predominantly lead to and in cases worsen the mental health of the inmates. Schizophrenia, depression and adjustment disorder are mental illnesses that top the list. In addition to this substance-use disorders are also prevalent. Experiencing these sufferings is not where it ends, self-harm and suicide also come into the picture. In a report by National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), from 2007 to 2011, 71% of the unnatural deaths were lodged as suicides. An average rate for suicides in general public was 11/1,00,000 and 16.9/1,00,000 for prison population. This maybe 9 years ago, but very little has been done since then to change these conditions. Further, even from 2015 to 2016, in a single year there was a jump of 28% in the prison suicide rate. Obviously, that is not the only consequence faced by inmates, mental instability, additionally, leads to ugly fights, episodes of self-harm and eventually to a state in which any hope of a righteous future vanishes.

The 2016 Report by NCRB states that for every 21,650 prisoners there is only one mental health professional available, this just in numbers, the quality of help has not even yet been considered.

This is with only six States and one Union Territory having psychologists/psychiatrists. Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the three States with the most prisoners with mental illness, did not have a single psychologist or psychiatrist. This is an alarming situation. Primarily because the State is dealing with conflicted individuals, their mental rehabilitation is of the same importance to the society as much as it is to the individual himself. In addition to vocational training, an adequate physical and mental healthcare is crucial. Perhaps in the wake of this, in 2019 Tihar Jail in Delhi launched a programme called Samarthan along with the AIIMS Psychiatry Department and the Mental Health Foundation of India (MHFI). The aim was to reduce the number of suicides, thus involving 300 plus counsellors. The said initiative has resulted in a better environment in Tihar, but this just a very small step towards a massive change.

The numbers stated in this piece are just to make the argument more credible, because often we hear that “they did something bad, so they deserve it.” But that is not quite the case, everyone deserves a chance to right their wrongs and for that a sound mind is necessary.

A mind so confused, so conflicted, full of regret and devoid of warmth will not do any good to any one.

So the questions regarding prison mental health still remain, hopefully they are addressed by policy executors and not executioners, soon.


- By Misri Kothari, PR member and Content Writer at L2S + India


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