A report into deaths in prisons in England and Wales has identified ‘deeply concerning patterns’ of institutional racism in the prison estate, leading to the premature and preventable deaths of black and minority ethnic prisoners.
Despite clear patterns in prisoner deaths, the report criticises investigations and inquests that are ‘consistently silent on issues of racism and discrimination’.
Although not disproportionately represented in the total number of prisoner deaths, a report found racialised individuals’ deaths (defined as Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, White Irish, White Gypsy or Traveller people or mixed-race people) were the most likely to occur in ‘contentious, violent and neglectful’ circumstances.
The report, produced by charity INQUEST, is based on a series of Freedom of Information Requests made concerning the ethnicity of those who died in the prison estate in England and Wales from 2015 to 2021. It calls on the Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care and the Government to urgently address their findings. 2021 saw the most deaths in a twelve month period ever recorded, with 371 deaths in prison in England and Wales. Of those who died in prison in the entire period examined in the report, more than a quarter of those took their own life.
INQUEST’s analysis of these figures identifies several critical issues in prisoner deaths. These include the inappropriate use of segregation, which was used disproportionately against black and mixed race prisoners. They also identify racial stereotyping as contributing to prisoner deaths, with black and mixed race prisoners more likely to be wrongfully identified as aggressive, which is used to justify inhumane and or excessively disciplinary treatment.
The report also criticises the hostile environment as a contributing factor to prisoner deaths. The possibility of continued indefinite detention as a feature of current immigration laws has harmful effects on prisoner mental health and can increase the likelihood of self-harm among certain racial or national groups.
Post-death investigations were also found to not address the role of racism and discrimination in prison deaths. The report concluded that the role of an individual’s race or racism was not considered in any of the post-death reports they received. INQUEST has said they consider it unlikely that discrimination did not play a role in any of the deaths analysed in their report, in particular considering the wide availability of evidence and analysis of institutionalised racism in the justice system and prison estate.
The report also includes 22 case studies of individuals whose families have been supported by INQUEST.
These include an anonymous black man with a history of stomach complaints who was found with blood in his cell. He was not taken to hospital and was found dead in his cell the next day. The inquest jury found systemic failings amounting to neglect by prison and healthcare staff had ‘significantly contributed to his death’.
Sarah Reed, a 32 year old mixed race woman died in 2016 in HMP Holloway. She had struggled with mental ill health for a prolonged period of time following the death of her baby daughter in 2003. She had also been violently assaulted by a police officer in 2012 which exacerbated her mental health struggles. She had been in prison for the sole purpose of obtaining a psychiatric assessment to determine whether she was fit to plead.
While in prison her mental health deteriorated, but she was taken off her anti-psychotic medication due to concerns about her heart. Her mental health presentation worsened but was treated as a ‘discipline issue’. She was found dead in her cell having taken her own life. The inquest jury found that an alternative, heart-safe, medication had been available at the time but was not prescribed.
Natasha Chin, a 39 year old black woman, died within 36 hours of entering HMP Bronzefield. An inquest said her death was caused by ‘systemic failure through poor governance which led to a lack of basic care’ and that her death was contributed to by the neglect of prison staff.