Death row prisoners could spend up to 23 years in jail and might have to wait up to 14 years for their sentence to be executed. This long incarceration and time spent agonising over the death penalty takes a heavy toll on prisoners who suffer from psychiatric illnesses and intellectual disability, according to a new study. The study conducted by Project 39A, a criminal justice program at the National Law University Delhi, also found that a majority of death row prisoners are from a disturbed family environment and one in two suffered physical or verbal abuse as children. It also found that 51 death row prisoners (62.2%) were diagnosed with at least one mental illness. The researchers interviewed 88 death row prisoners and their families. Project 39A executive director Anup Surendranath calls the theoretical approaches to punishment flawed. “At the core of the conversation around ‘blameworthiness’ is the unshakeable assumption that individuals act in a vacuum. However, there is now extensive research to show that this assumption is necessarily false and that individual actions are influenced by a whole host of factors involving social contexts, personal histories, psychological and developmental experiences etc.” The report ‘Deathworthy: A Mental Health Perspective of the Death Penalty’ — released on Wednesday — says of the 88 prisoners interviewed, 35% were diagnosed with major depressive disorder (the proportion of prisoners with MDD is about 11 times higher than that in the community population), 22% were diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, 20% suffered from substance use disorder and 6% screened for psychosis. Nine out of 83 prisoners were diagnosed with intellectual disability. The SC has often considered the emotional and mental agony of living with the uncertainty of the death sentence, as a factor in commuting the sentence after the rejection of mercy petition by the President but researchers say the torture for the prisoner begins as soon as he is sentenced to death.

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