Mental Health of Prisoners – by Aashita

Mental Health of Prisoners


The Author is Aashita Jain, a 4th year B.A.LL.B (Hons.) Student from IIMT and School of Law, IP University.


“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”- Nelson Mandela.


Every human being has some rights which are bestowed to him by virtue of being a human, these rights are called human rights, and no one can take away these rights; they are inalienable rights. The right to health is one such fundamental right that is provided to all the humans since birth. Even being a criminal behind bars, his right to health cannot be violated. As even after being a prisoner, the basic human rights does not wipe out.


The prisoners’ mental health deteriorate because of the environment the prisoners have to stay in and the kind of behavior they receive from other inmates. There is always a high risk of mental disorder among the prisoners. The factors which contribute to deteriorating the mental health of the prisoners are: inhumane conditions in which they live, violations of their human rights, overcrowding of prisons, and the inappropriate behavior they receive from other prisoners, which not only poses a physical threat but also have a detrimental effect on their mental conditions. The lack of interaction with their family members and the isolated state as some prisoners are kept in solitary confinement also contribute to mental illness.


There is a high suicide rate among the prisoners as compared to others. It is one of the consequences of the lack of care given to the prisoners’ mental health. In India, the irony is that no one considers mental health illness as an illness that needs a treatment for cure. People’s lack of awareness regarding mental health and the consequences of mental illness is the main reason why people suffering from depression and anxiety are highest in India.


According to Penrose’s law given by Lionel Sharples Penrose, the population size of prisons and psychiatric hospitals are inversely proportional to each other. This means that if the population of mental asylum increases, then the prison population decreases, and when the population of mental asylums decreases, then the prison population will increase. This can happen when mental asylums do not allow some patients with mental illness to be admitted and treated as they may think that they don’t need any treatment; they are fine. Later, the person who has any kind of mental illness commits a crime, and directly ends up landing in prison.




According to the National Crime Records Bureau report, the biggest reason for custodial deaths in India is suicide. Among all the unnatural custodial deaths in India, suicide itself accounts for 71 %. Before putting them behind bars, screening the individuals, identifying the important risk factors such as drug and alcohol abuse or mental illness, and seeking appropriate medical aid in this regard may reduce the number of such incidents substantially.


Many prisoners who commit suicide are under trial prisoners, which means they are not yet been convicted but are only been accused of the alleged crime, and their trial is still going on. They have to live a convict’s life even before the judicial verdict, which leads to excessive stress. It is the outcomes of their prolonged ongoing trial and the uncertainty of whether they will be able to live a free life. This puts an adverse effect on their health.


According to the World Health Organisation Mental Health Atlas 2014[1], the available mental health resources calculated per 100,000 population for our country is an abysmal 0.30 psychiatrists, 0.07 psychologists, 0.07 social workers, and 0.12 nurses. This data is sufficient to show the scarcity of healthcare workers in India.


Other factors which influence the suicide in jails and prisons are: the shame of being incarcerated, as the reputation of an individual is severely tarnished when he is put behind bars and then the fear that he will never be able to reintegrate into the society due to the stigma attached with incarceration. The bullying that takes place inside jails, where other hardcore criminals bully others, has a severe effect on one’s psyche. Therefore, it is one of the significant cause of depression, and depressed persons are the prime subjects of suicides. Approximately 70 to 80 % of suicides are caused by severely depressed persons lacking counselling facilities provided by the prison authorities. Not all jail inmates have psychiatric conditions that can be diagnosed, and that is a lacuna demonstrated by a NIMHANS study in 1998.


According to Dr. Santosh Kumar Shah, Psychiatrist, Tihar Central Jail Hospital, no prisoners’ screening is conducted before they are sent to prison. No examination occurs while they are in prison; he says that there are people who have personality disorders, who are impulsive. And due to no productivity, they feel worthless and tend to commit suicide.


The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), core international treaty on the protection of the rights of prisoners, which was ratified by India in 1979. Therefore, there is a dire need of incorporating some  provisions into domestic law and state practice, helping in the issues raised above. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESR) states that prisoners have a right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Apart from civil and political rights, the so-called second-generation economic and social human rights as set down in the ICESR also apply to the prisoners.


In 2018, Project Samarthan had been launched to sensitize prison staff and inmates regarding the issues of mental health by the Delhi Prison Administration in collaboration with NGO Mental Health Foundation and was mentored by the professor Nand Kumar, Department of Psychiatry, All India Institute Medical Sciences (AIIMS).


The objective of the project is to provide psychological first aid sessions or counselling sessions to reduce the suicide rates in prison. After the commencement of Project Samarthan, it has been observed that the rate of suicide has drastically decreased.




A prisoner is sent to jail so that he can get reformed. After completing his punishment, he can come out and live a life as a dignified human who has been transformed into a responsible individual, who is no longer a criminal. But by staying in prison, one’s mental health deteriorates. Instead of being reformed, the prisoner tends to commit other crimes like drug abuse and suicide because neither adequate attention nor treatment is given to prison inmates with respect to their mental illness. It is the need of the hour to give utmost importance to the prisoners’ mental health and cure them by giving efficient treatment and due care. So that they can lead a normal life when they walk out of prison, and then it can be said that primary purpose of serving the punishment is fulfilled!


Disclaimer – The views expressed and information given in this article are solely of the author and do not represent in any way the views of or impose any liability on The Philomath, its employees or any other person or entity. We endeavor to maintain a quality check of the published articles but are in no way guaranteeing the accuracy of any information. Any legal opinion shared herein should not be used as an alternative to professional legal advice.

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