• Vaishnavi Rana

Mental Health in Prisons: A Surging Phenomenon

Updated: Aug 5

In India, prisons are just catacombs, where the right to a dignified existence is a distant dream. Overcrowding, bad living conditions, brutish treatment including physical and sexual violence, a lack of funding for health and care, insufficient legal aid, and staff shortage are all common problems in Indian jails. They provide a fertile ground for a variety of mental health issues in prisoners who are unable to maintain a regular social life. A study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry suggested that 23.8% out of the 500 surveyed prisoners suffered from psychiatric illnesses. (Goyal, 2021) Many prisoners have also been discovered to have coped with past life trauma which had exacerbated their mental health concerns. In an interview, a former prisoner, who is now the author of “Framed as a terrorist: my 14-year struggle to prove innocence”, discussed the bleak reality of prison life. He says Nothing kills the human spirit like a prison does. In prison, you are caged. Disconnected with the world, all you have is a continuous desperate wait for court dates and returning to normal life. (Khan, 2020)

Prisoners are one of the most marginalized groups in society, with few opportunities to live a normal and decent life. They lack basic needs and human treatment, making them vulnerable to mental diseases. Traditionally, Indian prisons have been overcrowded caverns with little regard for their basic concerns like health and privacy. When it comes to prisoners on death row, the issues become even more serious. Such offenders are typically treated atrociously and without respect for their needs because they are thought unfit for life in society. The pandemic has further intensified the issue of mental health in jails due to the suspension of family visits and the delayed court production of under trials. The Prison Statistics India (PSI) reports, published by the National Crime Records Bureau, show a consistent increase in the number of suicides from 77 to 116, or 51% from 2015 to 2019. (Raghavan, 2022) According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, prisoners are twice as likely as the overall Indian population to commit suicide. Suicides are just one symptom of the despair that inmates experience. Conditions in jails are making it more likely for inmates to develop mental health problems, and medical staffing shortages are widening the gap between a prisoner and effective care for mental health issues.

Peer support groups and mental health programs are also glaringly absent in most prisons. As a result, there is an increasing number of mentally ill inmates who are not being properly identified and treated, as Anderson also suggests in his paper, “Mental Health in prison populations”. (Anderson, 2004)

While some convicts commit crimes while mentally sick, many more become mentally ill while incarcerated. Mentally ill inmates are frequently shunned by their families, in addition to the public humiliation. Many of the prisoners have been charged with crimes against their relatives which naturally causes their families to distance themselves from them. As a result, even though they are still awaiting trials, they are serving defector life sentences. For example, in West Bengal, there is a Nepalese prisoner who has been held for more than 37 years. (Correspondent, 2021) This incident also highlights the misery of under trials in jails, who keep languishing for years waiting for their basic liberties. According to the jail hospital, under trial convicts who have just been held in custody or whose bail has been denied are the most vulnerable to self-harm, reads an article on the Quint. (Tripathi, 2021)

Given the inequality between male and female inmates, the issue is even more acute for female offenders. When Indian women go to prison, they mostly go to a prison inside a prison, reads an article on The Wire. (Sen, the Wire, 2021) They have to deal with terrible sanitation, a lack of medical and psychological assistance, and frequent intimidation. The institutional frameworks to manage the issue of mental health in prisons are in place, yet the authorities continue to show complete disdain. For example, the medical officer of the jail is required to provide quarterly reports to Mental Health Review Boards (MHRBs) about the state of prisons with mental illness under the Mental Healthcare Act (MHCA) of 2017. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, however, started, in an RTI response, dated 12 October that only three states (Tripura, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh) have established MHRBs. In this context, comes the Ministry of Home Affairs, which has issued an advisory on the mental health issues of jail inmates and employees in June. (Goyal, 2021) It was issued in response to the authorities' complete disrespect for the right to the mental health of convicts. The recommendations in the advisory broadly include constant monitoring of prisoners with suicidal tendencies, buddy systems, psychological first aid (look, listen and link), organizing awareness classes and stress management workshops,” an article on the print notes. (Goyal, 2021)

We, as a society, are not accustomed to considering mental health a serious concern, and as a result, the mentally ill convicts are even more ignored. Despite attempts in the form of several judicial pronouncements and legislation for the mental health of convicts, there is still a lack of strong commitment to carry out the official orders. For example, the Supreme Court has recognized the treatment and rehabilitation of prisoners with mental illnesses in the Vaman Narain Ghiya case. (Goyal, 2021) Even the petition, which was filed in the Delhi High Court for addressing the mental health concerns in the Tihar jail, went in vain because nothing significant happened in this area. One of the Tihar jail inmates showed his skepticism by saying, I don’t even know what ‘depression’ is. I just know that my father died and the prison authorities did not let me attend his funeral. I have never forgiven myself for it. I want to cry but don’t know how. I don’t think I want to be happy. I never will be. I will just die here.” (Tripathi, 2021)

India has used a retributive justice system to deliver justice that has transformed inmates into walking corpses.The emphasis here is on punishment and revenge rather than on the reformation of prisoners. It is one of the primary reasons why prisoners suffer from mental health difficulties in jails, and it also inhibits them from integrating into society once they are released. It is consequently critical to emphasize the rehabilitation and reformation of prisoners, with a focus on their holistic development, even within the confines of prisons. It will also lower the chances of their re offending after they are freed. Existing laws for adequately regulating mental healthcare in prisons must be implemented as soon as possible. We may seek to establish the Positive Prison Culture, like in Norway,in which prisoners have greater freedom on the premises, have access to rehabilitation programs, and prison officials act more like social workers who get to know the prisoners rather than administering sanctions. It is important to treat prisoners with respect and to continually ensure that their right to mental health is safeguarded. It is a surging phenomenon in jails as a result of the continual deterioration of Indian jails, yet it is still being overlooked. It should be amplified because it is affecting a group of people from our society, whose rights are also advocated even by our constitution.


  1. Article on the Print, Ritika Goyal, 29 July 2021, Prisoners are twice as likely to die by suicide. Existing laws do little to help them, https://theprint-in.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/theprint.in/opinion/prisoners-are-twicw-as-likely-to-die- by-suicide-existing-laws-do-little-to-help-them/705282

  2. Article on the Print, Mohammad Aamir Khan, 10 May,2020, No, lockdown is not like a prison. I was in Tihar, Dasna and Rohtak jails for 14 years, https://theprint.in/opinion/lockdown-isnt-prison-i-was-in-tihar-dasna-rohtak- jails/417728/?amp

  3. Article on the Citizen, Penelope Tong and Vijay Raghavan, 10 January 2021, Mental health in prisons, a long-neglected crisis, https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/newsdetail/index/15/19859/mental-health-in-prisons-a- long-neglected-crisis

  4. Article on the page of National Library of Medicine, HS Anderson, 2004, Mental health in prison populations, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15447785/

  5. Article in the Hindustan Times, Dec 09, 2021, Bengal told to pay 5 lakh to Nepali man jailed for 41 years without trial, https://wwwhindustantimescom.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/www.hindustantimes.com/cities/Kolkata- news/Bengal-told-to-pay-rs-5-lakh-to-nepali-man-jailed-for-41-years-without-trial -101639035930398-amp.html

  6. Article on the Wire, Jahnavi Sen, March 08, 2021, “Buzz of a mosquito…But with the sound of grief”: The lives of India’s women prisoners, https://mthewirein.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/m.thewire.in/article/women/india-women-prisoners-rights/

  7. Article on the Print, 29 July 2021, Ritika Goyal, Prisoners are twice as likely to die by suicide. Existing laws do little to help them, https://theprint-in.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/theprint.in/prisoners-are-twice-as-likely-to-die--by- suicide-existing-laws-do-little-to-help-them/705282/

  8. Article on the Quint, 17 July 2021, Karan Tripathi, Punishing the soul: Tihar jail is breeding ground for a mental health crisis, https://www-thequint-com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/www.thequint.com/amp/story/news/law/delhi- Tihar-jail-breeding-ground-for-mental-health-crisis?

  9. Anderson, H. (2004). Retrieved from National library of medicine: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15447785/Correspondent, H. (2021, December 09).

  10. Retrieved from Hindustan Times: https://www- hindustantimes-com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/www.hindustantimes.com/cities/kolkata- news/bengal-told-to-pay-rs-5-lakh-to-nepali-man-jailed-for-41-years-without-trial

  11. Goyal, R. (2021, July 29). Retrieved from ThePrint: https://theprint- in.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/theprint.in/opinion/prisoners-are-twice-as-likely-to-die-by-suicide- existing-laws-do-little-to-help-them/Khan, M. A. (2020,May 10). Retrieved from The Print: https://theprint.in/opinion/lockdown-isnt-prison- i-was-in-tihar-dasna-rohtak-jails/417728/?amp

  12. Raghavan, P. T. (2021, February 16). Retrieved from TheCitizen: https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/newsdetail/index/15/19859/mental-health-in-prisons- a-long-neglected-crisis

  13. Sen, J. (2021, March 08). Retrieved from the Wire: https://m-thewire- in.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/m.thewire.in/article/womwn/india-women-prisoners-rights/

  14. Sterbenz, C. (2014, December 11). Retrieved from Business Insider: https://www-businessinsider- com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/www.businessinsider.com/why-norways-prison-system-is-so- successful-2014-12?

  15. Tripathi, K. (2021, July 17). Retrieved from the Quint: https://www-thequint- com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/www.thequint.com/amp/story/news/law/delhi-tihar-jail-breeding- ground-for-mental-health-crisis

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