Life on Death Row

"One inmate invited us to his execution like it was his wedding."
June 18, 2018, 7:39am
life on death row
Carvings of deities on the walls of a jail cell at Golconda Fort, Hyderabad. Image: Wikimedia Commons

A man convicted of raping and murdering a woman had been sentenced to death by a high court. He was several years into serving his sentence when Angela Joseph came to see him. He told her that the police forcibly took semen from him in custody, and framed him. This was Joseph’s first interaction with an inmate. She felt he might have been reluctant or awkward because of her gender. A male colleague with her took over the case. “I felt so rejected,” she said.


There are currently 408 prisoners sentenced to death in India. Joseph, 34, is a trained clinical psychologist and works with inmates on death row. She is a part of a project undertaken by the Project 39A at National Law University at Dwarka, Delhi (earlier known as Centre on the Death Penalty). She is also joined by Maitreyi Misra, 33 and Peter John, 26. They tell us they've interviewed "close to 100 death row prisoners”. The project aims to “undertake a descriptive analysis of the lived experience of prisoners on death row with a focus on mental health” and was launched in 2015, with the interviews beginning in November 2016.

What must it feel like to be constantly aware of one's impending state sanctioned death? John admitted “The normalcy of these interactions kind of throw me off.” Misra, who is a lawyer, chipped in, “Sometimes they [conversations] are silly and sometimes they are philosophical.”

Misra, who had experienced depression, started this project at National Law University to better understand the mental health of death row inmates. Image: Maroosha Muzaffar

Misra who was instrumental in starting this project told me, “I was once interviewing an inmate who was under severe depression. He had been accused of raping and murdering a minor." Because prisoners who commit heinous crimes are thought of as demons, Misra said, no one was eager to talk to him. “It was terrible.” Prison officials dismiss it by saying “ Depression hi toh hai,” she tells me.

Depression is common. Courts take notice when suicides occur inside prisons, not when depression has been building throughout ,” Misra pointed out. Indian prisons have a severe dearth of mental health professionals and trained staff.


Once, an inmate gifted Misra a painting he had made. “Take this from me. Maybe you’ll remember me after I am dead,” Misra recalled him saying.

Another inmate asked John to come to his execution, “as if he was inviting us to a wedding”. “It was ridiculously mundane the way he said it.”

Joseph recollected a particularly interesting conversation with a man who had been convicted of murder. “The deceased’s wife was the one responsible for him being in the prison.” In India, prisoners on death row face harrowing living conditions and torture. “In spite of all the misery, he could still find it in his heart to forgive that woman.” She believes she learns from these conversations with inmates every time. “This man was not an educated person, he has not read a thousand books. He has his own life experiences to guide him.”

Peter John read a judgement once and the “judge used the word demonic to describe one of the prisoners who was on death row.” Image: Maroosha Muzaffar

John believes that “praying had the connotation of redemption”, and recalled another interaction with an inmate. “The man was telling me that he was very young when his father abandoned him. He was kind of riffing and trying to make sense of his own abandonment while talking. He is using you as a sounding board to make sense of his life.” John recalled, “He came to the conclusion that he has a responsibility to ensure that he doesn’t become like his father but he realised that he in some ways has replicated that. Because he is no longer with his family.”

Abandonment was another dominant theme. “This was something we noticed in a lot of prisoners, a lot of abandonment that have happened to them throughout their lives,” John said. John is interested in understanding how prison research and religion are intertwined and is pursuing his research on “human sacrifice, mental illness and capital punishment.” He was reading a judgement and the “judge used the word demonic to describe one of the prisoners who was on death row.” It was interesting as that “harkened back to the idea of demonic possession as a source of mental illness.”


Between the three of them, it’s not just the inmates’ stories that they carry with them but also their families. For Joseph, it’s when she is talking to the inmates’ families that shades of gray begin to appear. “Stepping into their world and seeing repercussions of someone’s else’ actions on their lives, it is hard.”

Angela Joseph is a trained clinical psychologist and works with inmates on death row in India. Image: Maroosha Muzaffar

Joseph once met a boy in his early 20s whose father had been convicted of rape and murder and was now serving a death sentence. “This boy had it rough. His home was destroyed. And he had to move different localities. He has to guard his identity.” Joseph met him at a place where the boy had last met his father. “You can see that it is a constant war that he is waging within himself just to survive.” He also has to take care of his mother, his brother who has some kind of mental illness. He is taking responsibility plus fighting an internal battle. A part of him wants to reach out to his father but at the same time he knows that it is because of his father they have landed in this situation.”

Joseph claimed that the children of condemned inmates usually “build an armour around themselves.” They have survival instincts, these kids, and they rise above those circumstances but a part of them is also hardened.”

And then there are other indignities meted out to those inside. Joseph once addressed an inmate as ji in conversation with a prison official, who snapped,”how can you call him ji? This is a criminal we are talking about.” Only the interviewers get proper chairs during a session. The inmate sits on a tiny steel stool. Someone of these interviews have gone on for five hours. An inmate is never served tea during an interview. “We don’t want the tea but they put the cups in front of us. There is never any tea for the inmate,” Joseph said.

The Centre on Death Penalty does not have a stance on capital punishment. Misra explains, “Our aim really is to make the state accountable.” I ask them about their own views on the death penalty. “It is a complicated question. But I do think that it is a good way for the state to say that they have done something without actually bringing in any systemic changes,” said Misra.

John adds, “As someone with an anthropological background, I would refrain from saying that capital punishment is intrinsically evil. That being said, I do think that industrialist democracies use state-sanctioned murder in truly despicable ways that have little to do with the cultural expression of violence. In India especially, it is has been and will be unsustainable.”

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