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Ram Singh's death: Why stopping jail suicides is not easy

Delhi gang-rape accused Ram Singh's suicide might have stirred a hornet's nest sending the media into a tizzy questioning the security measures in Delhi's high security Tihar Jail.  However, prison statistics published by the National Crime Records Bureau show that there are usually over 40 incidents of suicides in jails across the country every year. The latest 2011 report reveals that 68 prisoners have committed suicide in that year, with close to 13 suicides in Tamil Nadu jails.

Questions have risen over the security measures in Indian jails. From the absence of security cameras to monitoring of people under 'suicide watch', Ram Singh's death brings to fore several uncomfortable truths about Indian prisons.

Inmates in Tihar Jail. Reuters.

Inmates in Tihar Jail. Reuters.

Following are a few facts around deaths due to suicide in Indian jails.

1. Indian jails are grossly overcrowded, possibly making it difficult to keep a close watch on its inmates. For example, according to the official website of Tihar Jail, where Ram Singh committed suicide in a high security cell, there are around 12,000 inmates lodged in the jail. The capacity of the jail, as approved by the prisons authorities, is 6250.

2. According to a study published in the Delhi Psychiatry Journal in April 2012, most prisoners (almost 80 percent) who attempt to kill themselves in Indian jails, try to hang themselves. Experts say that is mostly due to the availability of basic supplies like clothes. Ram Singh, allegedly hung himself with a piece of cloth he had on him.

Ranveer Kumar, IG Prisons, West Bengal clarifies that while there are a set of basic provisions to help prevent suicides - such as making sure ropes and other such tools of suicide unavailable to prisoners - there are some practical difficulties that face jail authorities in doing so. "For example, for humanitarian reasons we have to provide inmates with blankets or bedclothes, which can well be used for an act like that."

3. The same survey revealed that more than half of the Indian prisoners who commit suicide are between 25-35 years of age and have no family to go back to or have families who have distanced themselves from them.

4. Since several inmates suffer from depression and other psychological disorders, (33-95 percent of those who have attempted suicide), the Tihar Jail introduced Vipassana for its inmates. In 1993, Kiran Bedi oversaw the process where Vipassana sessions were organised for the prisoners. Vipassana is known to be a self reflective mode of meditation which helps calm the consciousness.

However, like Kiran Bedi pointed out on CNN IBN, prisoners who are kept in isolation cannot be made to participate in community activities as these.

5. While one might argue that overcrowding should cut down chances of committing suicides, it acts the other way round in Indian jails. Given the very limited number of counsellers in Central Jails in India and no counsellors in sub divisional jails, it becomes very difficult to keep a tab on individual inmates.

"A way to prevent such acts is to engage with inmates personally. Something that correctional services officers or jail wardens who meet inmates everyday are better equipped to do than a visiting psychologists. They are trained to engage with the inmates, collect information about their families and hence keep a watch on them, but given how overcrowded our jails are, that too becomes a tough call," explains Kumar.

6. 'Suicide Watch' in the context of Indian jails is possibly a term coined in common jail parlance to refer to inmates who have tendencies to commit suicide. Unlike Suicide Prevention Programmes in American prisons, there isn't much of a manual that Indian correctional homes can fall back on. The American Correctional Association, in around 2000, had drafted a set of rules called suicide prevention standards which are meant to nip such attempts at the bud.

It includes screening and identification of potential victims, close, uninterrupted watch on vulnerable prisoners every 30 minutes and intervention and prevention training to all correctional services staff. In India, the system works rather haphazardly.

If a psychiatrist or a jail official gets a whiff of someone's suicidal tendency, he is usually put on a watch. "There is no clinical process of identification and screening of prisoners. Human engagement is the only we can intervene. When we come to know of a depressive prisoner, we ask the warden to keep a 24x7 watch on him - something that takes a lot of effort and is susceptible to slips," explains Kumar.

7. The topography of Indian jails make them conducive to suicide attempts. Several Indian jails have a large, rambling landscape with several areas which can't be secured completely against hazards such as these. The expansive landscape, overwhelming number of prisoners probably makes it especially difficult to keep a close watch at night.