More than three-fourths of death row convicts in the country belong to socially, economically and educationally backward section of the society, according to a report.
The report by Centre for Death Penalty of Delhi National Law University also states that more than 80 per cent of the death row inmates are subjected to 'inhuman, degrading and extreme forms of physical and mental torture' inside prisons.
The study which documents the socio-economic profile of prisoners sentenced to death in India identifies that almost three-fourth of the prisoners were economically vulnerable and a major chunk of them were either primary or sole earners in their family.
About 76 per cent of convicts awaiting gallows belong to backward classes and religious minorities, as per the report which also indicates that all the 12 female death row convicts in the country belong to the above mentioned categories.
And 216 of 270 prisoners, (i.e, 80 per cent) in this study spoke about custodial torture faced by them which includes the most inhuman, degrading and extreme forms of physical and mental torture inside the dark walls.
Burning skin with cigarettes, inserting needles into fingernails, forced nudity, forced anal penetration with rods and glass bottles, forced to drink urine, made to urinate on heater, hung by wires, extreme beating etc are few forms of torture that have been revealed in the study.
The study also found that 23 per cent of prisoners sentenced to death had never attended school and 61.6 per cent had not completed their secondary education.
"If the accused is illiterate, it affects his defence," Supreme Court judge Justice Madan B. Lokur said during a panel discussion regarding the report.
The report identifies 385 death row convicts lodged in various prisons across different states among which Uttar Pradesh tops the list with 79 convicts in line to gallows.
Living on a death row with uncertainty is worsened with the harsh conditions which includes solitary confinement as the the apex court itself in 1978 had ruled that the prisoner sentenced to death could be kept in a cell away from other prisoners, the 'Death Penalty India Report' has said.
The report throws light into the life of death row convicts and is a critical analysis of the criminal justice system, which according to Justice Lokur, requires a major procedural and substantive reformation.
"While it is not possible to make any arguments regarding direct discrimination, the report certainly highlights the disparate impact of the death penalty in India on groups marginalised along the axis of caste, religion, economic vulnerability and educational status," said Anup Surendranath, director of the Centre on the Death Penalty.
During the panel discussion, Justice Lokur also referred to shortcomings of the legal aid system in the country, saying that people have lost faith in legal aid lawyers.
The study supports this view as it states that 70.6 per cent of the death row prisoners represented by private lawyers were economically vulnerable and it shows that "their deep-seated fear of legal aid lawyers drove the families to hire private lawyers".
The panel discussion also pointed out the fact that around three-fourth of the prisoners have not got a chance to interact with their lawyers outside court. This becomes worse when the matter comes to high court where most them have never interacted with or even met their high court lawyers.
Adding to the misery, families of convicts face a major challenge to visit the prison owing to the extremely vulnerable economic status.
"Its like caught between two blades of scissors, with no means to escape," the report quoted Harikrishnan, a convict who had already spent nearly 12 years in prison for rape and murder.
He, with extreme anguish at his inability to prove his innocence, had slashed his genitals with a piece of floor tile after a television channel portrayed him as a monster and his entire village being terrified of him. His clemency plea was rejected by the President.
The report says there is a need of urgency to look into the mental health of death convicts at different levels.
"The accounts of the prisoners seeking mercy allow us to understand their fears and despair which are aggravated by the opacity of the process," it said.
Even though the apex court has been following a time honoured tradition by hearing appeals of prisoners sentenced to death, the Report brings out cases of 11 prisoners in last 10 years in which the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal.
The study does not seek to make a case for the abolition of the death penalty, but the purpose is to throw light on some difficult questions concerning the criminal justice system.