Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

DPRU Q&As: Dr Monisha Lakshminarayanan, social work researcher in India


Monisha Lakshminarayanan
Social work researcher


Time to read

7 Minutes

In this instalment of the DPRU's Q&A series with death penalty experts from around the world, social work researcher Dr Monisha Lakshminarayanan tells Carolyn Hoyle about her experiences of interviewing people on death row in India with Project 39A. 

Can you tell us a bit about how you came to be conducting interviews with people on death row?

I have an academic background in Psychiatric Social Work and have been working in the field of mental health as a researcher and practitioner for more than decade now. For my PhD research, I conducted an ethnographic study exploring resilience development among children in difficult circumstances. I was inevitably intimately connected to my study participants, who were often survivors of various forms of child abuse including rape and other forms of sexual violence. So, when I got the opportunity to speak to people on death row at the Belgaum Central Prison in Karnataka as part of a research team at Project 39A, exploring the lived experiences and mental health of death sentenced prisoners, I grabbed it. But I felt somewhat conflicted, given my PhD research, at the prospect of speaking to prisoners, many of whom were charged with rape and murder of minors.

How did you prepare yourself for such difficult fieldwork?

Part of my role in the research team was to carry out mental health assessments of these purportedly violent individuals and so I wanted to delve deep into their psyche and, if possible, their motives for their crimes. I initially saw these interviews as a means to push my professional boundaries.

I was specifically advised by the senior research team not to read about the details of the crimes, as this might bias the interview questions and my perceptions about those I was to interview. This was easier said than done, as most were high-profile cases that had attracted extensive media coverage. Moreover, when I reached the jail, I had to endure ‘pre-interview briefings’ by the prison authorities, during which I was reminded repeatedly that the prisoners were violent and was told to expect hostile, disinhibited behaviour. They asked me to wear modest clothes and maintain distance from prisoners at all times. That left me somewhat anxious.

The long wait to start each interview, the detailed checks and the guards seeking repeated assurances from me that I was not carrying anything sharp with which the prisoners may try to inflict harm on themselves, or on me, left me taut with apprehension.

The death row prisoners walked into the interview room with heavy security, handcuffed, with a designated guard, and warnings to behave themselves. A guard was always standing outside the ‘interview room’ ­– a cell with a chair, a table and a fan – making clear he was in control. Whenever I spoke quietly with prisoners, as they shared traumatic experiences, guards would interject, yelling “NO SECRETS”, aggressively pointing their lathis (long bamboo batons) at me and the prisoner.

And what did you find when you began to speak with the prisoners?

I realised how worried they were for their families, and how they yearned for basic needs and, above all, to be treated like human beings. They were extremely vulnerable to the harsh prison conditions, experiencing extreme stress and seeing the authorities as apathetic to their mental and physical health. It was a far cry from the belligerent responses I was told to expect from them. On the contrary, they were receptive to any possible news I could give them about the outside world that especially about their families and the progress of their appeals. When they were told that I had little significant information pertaining to them or their case, they did not complain; they said it was good just to talk to someone.

Even within such stark conditions, when their very lives were in limbo, and with nothing to gain from sharing their experiences, they generously revealed valuable details about the Indian prison system. It moved me. One prisoner offered me his tea, one of the few luxuries enjoyed by prisoners, and as my visits increased, they showed further sensitivity, offering comfortable seats out of the sunlight, under a fan; advising me to come early to avoid the long pre-interview procedures with the authorities; and asking me to carry more water as it was so hot. These acts of consideration from people living the harshest lives were not what I had expected. Over time, their treatment suggested they no longer saw me as a “Delhi madam”, but an “Akka” (sister in Kannada) and, for some, a “magalae” (daughter).

How did they speak about their own families?

Guilt was a prominent emotion. They felt guilty for having dragged their family members into the storm of public wrath. Most of the prisoners had no means of finding out about the well-being of their families. In many cases, their families had withdrawn and ceased contact. One prisoner asked me if she could talk to her family on my mobile, another wanted me to hand over a letter to them. When I expressed my inability to do either, due to prison restrictions, they wanted me to visit their families and tell them that they were ‘doing OK’ in jail. Their yearning to ease the emotional burden on their families was clear. They felt immense guilt for the poverty and trauma that their families endured. Families were shunned by other relatives and society more generally, and schools discriminated against their children through the admissions process. They felt that their families had to bear a heavy burden due to their association with death row prisoners. And the prisoners themselves could not provide even meagre support for their families as death row prisoners are not allowed to work.

Were any of the prisoners you interviewed in solitary confinement?

I was told that only the most violent and unmanageable of the prisoners are put in solitary confinement. For those, all contact with the prison environment is cut off, be it yard time, work, interaction with fellow prisoners or other forms of permitted entertainment and leisure. It’s akin to being in a prison within a prison, and some are subject to solitary confinement for years.

Before I interviewed one particular prisoner in solitary, I was told he would not likely talk at all and I braced myself to meet with someone who was withdrawn and agitated. Instead, I met a meek old man and as he settled down opposite me, there were tears streaming from his eyes. Unused to sunlight, he flinched and moved to a seat in a recess of the cell. While there were no responses from him to my questions, this broken, frail man was a far cry from the man I expected to meet. He shut his ears and shivered every time I spoke. He lifted his trembling hands and folded them, begging me not to speak. These behaviors indicate hypersensitivity and disconnection from reality.

Unsure how to respond, I touched his hand, trying to reassure him. This brought forth fresh tears, and he expressed his joy in being spoken to and addressed like a human being. He lifted my hand and ran it across his scalp. I could feel multiple ridges of scars that years of prison violence had inflicted on him. His yearning to be treated as a human being was so simple, and for that, so poignant.

Of course, I could see in him what the literature tells us, that solitary confinement leads to irreparable mental anguish. It exacerbates existing mental health problems in prisoners but even if a prisoner has enjoyed good mental health in the past, this traumatic experience can create considerable harm.

What about the mental health of other death row prisoners?

It was not good. Much to my surprise, almost all prisoners I spoke to were on high doses of anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. This was even more alarming when I realised these drugs were administered after one quick interaction with the prisoner in open space, rather than in private. The drugs were being administered with no proper monitoring or review.

One of the prisoners revealed that he had been on this medication since his trial, several years ago, when he refused to give a false confession that he claimed the police demanded. In an informal interaction with the support staff in the prison, I noticed prisoners being told to ‘pop the pill’ so that they would sleep a lot and not create trouble. The results of this overmedication were evident in the form of trembling, slurring of speech and drooling.

Using medication as a means to control prisoners, apart from violating all ethical norms, can exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems. None of the mental health assessments that I conducted as part of our study showed any traces of violent and agitated behaviour. However, most indicated trauma, severe depression, fear, poor orientation, reduced cognition, impaired judgment and a range of negative symptoms (which could be related to long-term incarceration). It was clear to me that the prison conditions, practices and policies not only do not improve the mental health of prisoners on death row, but contribute to its deterioration.

India is supposed to sentence to death only the ‘worst of the worst’. Did you interview people you would describe in that way?

Most of those working within the prison refer frequently to death row prisoners as “heinous” and “dangerous”. Of course, most have committed serious crimes, but these words did not resonate for me. I did not feel that the prisoners I spoke with were the ‘worst of the worst’, nor did I feel that they still posed a danger to others, certainly not to me.

What is more, my interviews persuaded me that they are caught in a ruthless justice system that fails to protect them and, indeed, exposes them to harm. Not only does it fail to provide adequate due process of law, but it inflicts severe psychological trauma on those held within its jurisdiction. By way of example, there is the morbid practice of placing the gallows in full view of the cells of death row prisoners.

My interactions with these prisoners made clear that most are from the lowest economic strata of society, lacking the economic resources to navigate the legal system, most mentally vulnerable. The present-day discourse on perpetrators unfortunately does little to expose these complex systemic issues. We dehumanize prisoners, especially those on death row, failing to provide a meaningful life while incarcerated, with no opportunities for work, education or rehabilitation and with no regard for their mental health.

It is hardly surprising that I witnessed such utter hopelessness and pain. What was surprising was that I also witnessed love, compassion and courage from these same individuals. Most of them have come to terms with their predicament and do not challenge their death sentences. However, they wish for a life with dignity, care and connection, and for people to see beyond the label of a dangerous death row prisoner, held for a heinous crime. What else could explain a woman prisoner, described as a “serial killer” by her fellow prisoners and the authorities, thrusting into my hand, on the last day of interview with her, a hand-knitted purse that she had made for her daughter?

Project 39A’s Deathworthy report presents the empirical findings of the research project discussed in this interview. It can be accessed here.

Profile photo of Monisha Lakshminarayan Dr Monisha Lakshminarayan is the lead evidence synthesis specialist at Campbell South Asia. She specialises in producing evidence-based products (systematic reviews and evidence gap maps), particularly in the area of youth crime. She endeavours to increase the uptake of high-quality evidence to inform practice and policy in this area.