Last week, the chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC), former Chief Justice of India HL Dattu, pointed out the need to protect the interests of prisoners with mental health illnesses, when he attended a meeting in Delhi for a review of mental health in India.
This issue had also come to light when the top court gave its observations on this matter in the case of accused X v. state of Maharashtra. It acknowledged that prisons could be difficult places to be in. Various aspects of a prisoner’s life, like overcrowding, violence, isolation, and absence of familial affection, could affect their mental health. The case before the court was that of a death row convict who was arrested back in 1999 for kidnapping and raping two minor girls. The three judge bench held that post conviction, mental illness could be a mitigating factor while deciding the cases of commutation of death sentence.
How can the State deal with the deteriorating mental health conditions of prisoners in India?
Prisons: A Mental Health Nightmare
The court also directed the state governments to work towards building a robust mental health infrastructure in prisons. The honourable bench recognised the obligations that stem from the municipal and international laws to protect the interests of people with mental health issues, and enunciated that sentencing a mentally ill person to death would amount to gross injustice.
An NCRB report highlights the lack of health professionals and psychologists to tend to the needs of prisoners.
But this progressive judgment poses a larger question: how can the state deal with the deteriorating mental health conditions of prisoners in India? The data collected by the NCRB reveals that nearly 102 people died by suicide in 2016 alone. In 2014, the National Human Rights Commission stated that a person was one and a half times more likely to die by suicide while he or she was in prison. This upsurge in the number of suicides points to the gravity of the mental health epidemic overall, and in jails in particular. Out of the 4 lakh prisoners, about 6,000 odd have mental health issues.
The NCRB report also highlighted the lack of health professionals and psychologists to tend to the needs of these prisoners.
Re-Examining Prison Policy & Laws
The denial of rights and dignity to prisoners, especially those with mental health illnesses, is a violation of human rights and natural rights.
These statistics indicate that India immediately needs to re-examine its prison policy so as to ensure the mental wellbeing of the inmates. Administrative apathy, procedural complexities and a lack of health infrastructure, coupled with massive overcrowding and alienation, are the major reasons for the rising mental health illnesses among prisoners. The most disturbing fact is that 68 percent of these prisoners are actually under trial, that is, they have not yet been declared guilty, and have been only accused of a crime.
The denial of rights and dignity to the prisoners, especially those with mental health illnesses, is not only a violation of human rights and natural rights, it is a violation of municipal and international laws. Section 103 of the Mental Health Care Act 2017 mandates the state to admit a prisoner with mental health illness to a mental health establishment, and to make all the necessary arrangements for the treatment of the person concerned. Moreover, article 10 of the international covenant on civil and political rights mandates the state to treat all the persons who have been deprived of their liberties, with humanity and respect.
An Eye For An Eye Makes The Whole World Blind
Contrary to this position of the law, some would argue that the very purpose of putting criminals behind bars is to punish them and inflict pain on them in order to make them repent for their wrongs. But these ideas of retribution do not sit well with the ideas of liberty and justice enshrined in our Constitution. Therefore, the Indian state has a legal, moral and constitutional duty to protect the interests of all prisoners, especially those with mental health issues, and ensure to them a life of dignity.
The need of the hour is to build stronger mental health infrastructure and adopt a reformative approach to enable our prison system, in order to turn criminals into healthy, law-abiding citizens. After all, punishment should not be a tool to disable criminals. Allowing an alienating and humiliating prison system to thrive, will lead to the violation of the right to life of these prisoners and will not do anything more than serving the purposes of retributive justice. An eye for an eye would definitely turn the whole world blind.
(Anchal Bhatheja is a 2nd year BA LLB (Hons) student of NLSIU, Bengaluru, and is the first 100% visually impaired student of the college. She likes to engage with law and policy, and the rights of the differently-abled. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)