In the final part of our series on the death penalty, Bar & Bench's Aamir Khan speaks to a death row prisoner who was acquitted by the Supreme Court of India in 2021 to understand his ordeal.
“If you want to see hell in your lifetime, it is jail,” says 48-year-old M, who served eight years on death row before walking out of prison as a free man upon acquittal by the Supreme Court of India.
M, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was sentenced to capital punishment in a murder case in 2014.
Maintaining his innocence, he credits his lawyers for fighting a battle which he felt he would have lost otherwise.
“And I was on death row. Other prisoners told me that they were looking at imprisonments of 20 years, 30 years for their crimes but I was inside for a more heinous crime and on death row — so there was no hope for me. It really felt like the end of the road for me,” said M.
The life of a death row convict in prison
As a death row prisoner, there were moments when M felt so hopeless that he did not want wish to continue living.
A 2021 study by Project39A found “high rates of anxiety, distress, suicidal ideation, sleeplessness and somatic symptoms in addition to various psychiatric illnesses” among 88 death row prisoners who were interviewed.
"The extremely restrictive conditions, the isolation from support systems, the completely different and strictly controlled environment are some features of prison systems that create conditions rife for a mental health crisis,” the report underlined.
What M felt after being moved to the death row ward is just one of the examples relied on by the study.
“Jail is hell. There are so many problems that one wants to die, but can’t. One loses all hope of being free when you are there,” he said.
According to him, the food he and other prisoners got was unpalatable. He spent most days and nights on an empty stomach.
“Everyday I woke up at 2:30-3 am in the morning. I couldn’t get any sleep. How could one get sound sleep without properly being fed?” asked M.
“There was no electricity in jail. The stench inside the prison cells would get unbearable as everybody would sweat profusely due to the summer heat. Khushboo toh ayegi nahi. Badbu hee ayegi (Obviously there was foul smell and not a pleasant odour),” he recollected.
Given the inadequate capacity of the prison, M and other prisoners were crammed inside their cells. He recounts that they would tell each other before tossing and turning and do so in tandem, so as not to inconvenience each other.
Official data revealed a 130% occupancy rate by the end of 2021 in all of India's prisons.
The struggle within
The murder charge for which M was given the death penalty became a reason for some prisoners to loathe him. He kept to himself and eventually found solace in praying to God. He saw other prisoners taking this route, as per their respective beliefs. Over time, he developed a camaraderie with prisoners who respected each other’s beliefs and spaces.
He spent four years in a different prison as an undertrial before being moved to a jail for death row prisoners, where he was more isolated. For one-and-a-half years during his incarceration, he didn’t see or meet his children and was desperate to talk to them. He tried to call them from the jail phone, only to find their phones switched off.
After being awarded the death penalty, he was lodged in 6x8 feet cell with a toilet inside. Not more than two prisoners could live there. He was allowed to be outside the cell for merely four-and-a-half hours a day. In his dark cell, M could not tell whether it was day or night.
“Til til marte the… Bikul umeed nahi thi nikalne ki (One dies every moment. There was no hope that I would walk out),” he said.
Another prisoner who had spent 12 years of his life sentence told M that no one but God could help him, as he was a death row convict.
“I would cry and keep praying. I asked my children also to pray for me,” said M.
The call to freedom
M walked out of prison December 18, 2021 after jail officials informed him about his acquittal a couple of days prior.
“I remember I had just showered when I was called to the office. The official asked me for my name and informed me that I had been acquitted. I did not believe it and asked him if he was joking,” remembered M.
Life in jail meant M was isolated from the world outside, and to most developments in his case. Through this process, his lawyers remained in touch with his family.
“They (lawyers) did more than a family would have done,” a grateful M says.
M’s lawyers told him that his acquittal was a rare one, given the nature of the witnesses in the case.
At the time of his release, when M was on his way to have his prison meal, some officials told him to gather all his belongings. His hunger vanished as soon as he realised he was about to walk out of jail.
“I told fellow prisoners that I won’t eat. I’ll go out and eat. The moment I walked out, I thanked the almighty,” M recollected.
His case had attained considerable media attention, as evidenced by the multitude of media persons stationed outside the prison gate when he was being released. Unperturbed by the commotion, M was focussed on filling his stomach.
“It felt like heaven when I came out,” he said.
Regaining his freedom was an unusual feeling for M, who said prisoners always walked on eggshells inside the prison. He also welcomed the hustle and bustle he hadn’t seen in many years.
“I came home and ate for two people. And then I slept,” said M.
When he woke up the next morning, he felt like he was still inside his cell and would soon be summoned for the morning ritual of prayers.
“Even now, I sometimes wake up at 3AM and I can’t go back to sleep,” he added.
In the initial months after his release from jail, M remained excessively cautious.
Although a free man now, M regrets not being with his family at the time when one of his children died. The family chose not to tell him about the death, fearing for his mental health, and did not contact him for eight months.
He lost another child a few months ago.
M, who is a daily-wage worker in the unorganised sector, wants to improve his family’s living conditions.
“Life is not good where I live right now. I want to move to a bigger city for better opportunities,” he said.
[Read Part I of the series]
[Read Part II of the series]