What Prison Sentence Would You Choose For Yourself: Death Or Life-Long Imprisonment?

Posted on September 17, 2013 in Thinking Required!

By Rita Banerji:

I know that there’s been a lot of debate about the death penalty in India after the judge in the Delhi gang rape case handed death sentence to four of the convicted men. And that’s why I want to make clear that this article is not about whether or not India should abolish death penalty. What I am interested in finding out is why so many people in India, across all different sections of society, believe that ‘Death’ is the ultimate and most apt form of justice for the convicted men.

life prison

Right from the start, in December 2012 when thousands came out onto the streets to protest, there were placards everywhere demanding that the courts ‘Hang the Rapists.’ Nirbhaya before her death had also said she wanted them to get the death penalty. And her parents too consistently maintained that until these men got death penalty they would not find peace. In fact the response of the crowds outside the court house was far more jubilant when the death sentence for the four men was announced than when the guilty verdict for gang rape and murder was announced three days prior to that.

Because this case involved murder, the judge had one of two options under the Indian penal code: life term imprisonment with no parole and death. If the judge had announced life-term imprisonment undoubtedly the crowd would not be jubilant. They and a majority of the public in India would have been very angry and upset, because they would think that justice had not been done to Nirbhaya. They believe that justice will be done to Nirbhaya only when death penalty is executed. Justice here is being seen as a measure of the penalty imposed on those convicted. What kind of a penalty should the men be made to pay that would be an adequate punishment for the crime they’ve committed? If the men were given a life-term the price they would be paying is their freedom for the rest of their lives. But those who demand death penalty are saying that freedom is not the most precious thing a person can sacrifice when they pay for a crime, their lives are far more precious. Hence they should pay for this crime with their life. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is my understanding of why there is this widespread call for death penalty for these men in India.

But what I don’t understand and that’s why I will now put the question to you, is why people think death is a bigger price to pay than your life-long freedom. So if you are reading this, consider this question: Imagine you are standing before a judge in a court and awaiting a sentence which could be either death or life-time imprisonment. What would you hope for?

If you think you can’t be in that situation then perhaps your faith in the criminal justice system in India is stronger than mine. I think of the Aarushi Talwar case, where a 14-year-old girl was found brutally murdered in her bed in an upper-middle class home in Noida. Aarushi’s parents have been put on trial for her murder, and that of the male domestic help, based entirely on the police’s supposition of what they like to believe happened, that is the father killed them because he found them in a sexually compromising position. This charge was leveled with no credible criminal and forensic evidence, and I think that that could be anyone in that box, standing trial for murder, facing the option of death or life-time imprisonment.

I wonder if they have public tours of the inside of Tihar jail or any other jail for I have never seen the inside of a prison in India. But I have seen photos, heard second hand reports, and the picture is not pleasant. They are dirty, filthy, crammed Hells on earth. It’s hard to imagine how appalling they can actually be. A few months back when actor Suraj Pancholi was arrested for his girlfriend Jiah Khan’s death, and put in a jail in Mumbai which actually is much better than a majority of jails in India, I was struck by how he described his time there. He said, “They took my phone, iPad, drives and…For [first] four days, I did not have a bath or brush my teeth, remained in the same clothes, had no pillow or a blanket. There was one wall fan and I shared Odomos [ointment] with the guy who I shared the cell with. There was pee on the floor on both sides. The guy I was sharing the cell with was 20 and told me he had raped two girls and was a drug addict. There would be vomit on both sides and paan and tambaku spat on the floor. They did not let me talk to my family in the lock-up for those four days… There are about 10 gangs there and fights and stabbing take place routinely. I saw them stabbing each other using spoons… I was kept in what they called the ‘unda cell’ so I would not be stabbed or subjected to extortion.”

And then it is not hard to imagine what the police and officers who run this place inflict on the inmates. Harassment, bullying, belittlement, bribes, corruption — this is like the basic expectation of the Indian public from the police. We’ve seen videos of policemen smacking a woman across the face for protesting peacefully, four policemen with batons beating up a woman for trying to file a sexual harassment complaint, and beating to the ground a mother protesting lack of police action for the rape and murder of her little girl. A senior policeman who gang rapes a woman in a police station, get only one year in prison. And all this is while the police deal with people in the open — in public spaces and in police stations. It is hard to imagine what kind of fearsome, demons they become in those dark, dirty corners of jail houses where there are no cameras, no media or public eye to be witness to what they do and how far they can go. What would it be like to live in these filthy, lightless, hopeless dungeons, lorded over by the Indian police day after day for the rest of your life?

Recently a young man who had been sent to a youth reform prison for drugs talked about the extensive physical, emotional and sexual torture he had to endure every day. He said, “I was [12 when I was] brought to the home where I found that more than half the boys were drug addicts like me…If you pay money to the guards, any jugaad is possible. I have seen drug packets being procured even when the boys go to the court for hearing…Many boys have had their face disfigured by blades, or worse, stomach slashed by broken glass from window panes. You have to be on your guard all the time when you are inside. The older boys treat you like their slave. If you resist, they pour boiling water on you. Next come the slashing… The older boys – who are usually repeat offenders – hold sway. Fights break out many times during the day especially when the ‘repeaters’ are high on what we call the ‘Dus number’ tablet. It removes all feeling of pain. It also makes them very dangerous. We used to dread it when the lights were switched off. Woh bahut galat kaam karte the chhote bachhon ke saath [The older boys sexually abused the younger ones].” If someone had to live with this, day after day might he choose death as a means to freedom from this life-long hell and torture?

Indeed, I believe that even when prison systems are half-way more human than what we have in India, the idea of the loss of freedom is equivalent to the loss of life — but in a more excruciating way. Why do many people with life-term sentences commit suicide in prison? It’s because there is nothing in their life that represents living. What are the little things that give you most pleasure about your life? Watching the sun rise? Picking up the phone to hear your mother or father’s voice? Baking a cake on a whim to surprise your kids? Chilling out with your friends over some great chai and snacks and a silly movie you all laugh at together? To be mechanically eating the same, unhygienic, prison food and sleeping behind bars under a police baton is not living. What would it be like to just repeat a set pattern mechanically everyday till you die? What does it matter whether you die 30 years from the day you are sentenced, or you die the day after? Wouldn’t death be a form of mercy? A welcome relief?

So do take a few minutes to really think over this. If you had to choose between a life-sentence and death penalty for yourself what would you choose? What is a bigger punishment — one death or a life where you die a little every day just waiting for death?