Deaths in custody – including police, prison, secure hospital and immigration detention – are of concern for a number of reasons, including the intrinsic vulnerability of some of those in custody, the power imbalance inherent in the situation, and the almost insurmountable difficulties for families of the deceased to find out how someone died. In the UK two civil society organisations attempt to break down the difficulties after such deaths – Inquest, which provides casework services on deaths and facts and figures to the public and United Families and Friends Campaign, a networking group supporting families campaigning for justice. See a list of recent fatalities here.List of Deaths in Custody
The reason that there is concern over BME deaths in custody is not necessarily because of a disproportion in overall numbers of such deaths, but because of the circumstances under which some deaths take place which suggest that stereotypes about how certain groups will behave, especially young black men, then informs the way in which they are treated. Many of those in immigration detention, too, are not white. But there is a worrying trend highlighted in two recent reports – that young black men, who may be actually suffering from a mental health crisis are not provided with medical care but on the contrary have undue force and/or weaponry such as tasers used against them, precipitating a situation in which previously physically fit men lose their lives. For a discussion of the seriousness of this issue see the government-commissioned Angiolini Review and from the IRR Dying for Justice and Race, mental health, state violence.
It is of concern that statistics on deaths in secure hospitals are not available, especially as such deaths, though investigated by a coroner at an inquest, do not require a jury.
Police Custody Deaths
A death in police custody is defined as including any death that occurs while a person is being arrested or taken into detention. It includes deaths of persons who have been arrested or have been detained by police under the Mental Health Act 1983. The death may have taken place on police, private or medical premises, in a public place or in a police or other vehicle.
The figures from INQUEST’s casework and monitoring indicate that there were 38 BME deaths in police custody between 2015 to 2021. 16 deaths occurred in the custody of or after contact with the Metropolitan Police Service, and 21 deaths occurred in the custody of or after contact with other forces. 27 deaths occurred in police custody and 11 deaths were fatal shootings. BME deaths in custody reached a highpoint in 2017, with 14 deaths, 9 in custody and 5 fatal shootings.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) collects data on road traffic incidents, fatal shootings, deaths in or following police custody, apparent suicides following police custody and ‘other deaths’ following police contact (e.g. deaths occurring after the police attend a domestic incident, or where the police are called to assist medical staff to restrain individuals who are not under arrest). The lack of information regarding the factors involved in BME deaths in these more opaque categories, such as ‘other deaths’, necessitates a focus on the category ‘deaths in or following police custody’. The IOPC’s 2019/2020 Report show that 23% of total deaths in or following police custody between 2015 to 2020 (i.e. 20 of 86 deaths) were people of BME background. Moreover, 70% of BME deaths (14 of 20) were of Black people, 20% were Asian, and 5% were ‘Mixed and Other’, respectively. In the year 2019/20, there were 18 deaths in or following police custody, of which 3 were Black people (17% of such deaths, despite making up only 3% of England’s population per the Census 2011.
The IRR’s most recent statistics reveal that 7 BME men died in prison between 2015 and 2019. Three deaths occurred in London prisons (Pentonville, Wandsworth, and Oakwood), 2 in the Midlands (Brinsford YOI and Nottingham HMP), and 1 death each in Chelmsford and Manchester, respectively. Suicide accounted for 4 deaths, while drug use and medical neglect contributed to the death of 2 men. Between 2015 to 2019, at least 1 BME man has died in prison every year, with the number increasing to 2 in 2016 and 3 in 2018. Further information on BME deaths in prison could not be obtained as the Ministry of Justice’s ‘Safety in Custody Statistics’ bulletins do not provide a breakdown of ethnicity for deaths in prison, only providing a gender breakdown.
A Freedom of Information request revealed that between January 2006 and December 2017, 13% of the 99 deaths in women’s prisons (13 deaths) were BME women. There were 3 deaths in both 2016 and 2017, 2 deaths in 2006 and 2011, 1 death in 2012, 2014, and 2015. There were 2 deaths each in Holloway, Bronzefield, Styal, and Foston Hall prisons. There was 1 death in Cookham Wood, Peterborough, and Drake Hall prisons, respectively. Of the 13 deaths, 4 deaths were classified as self-inflicted with 3 BME women found hanged, and 8 deaths were classified as natural causes. Medical negligence contributed to 38% of BME women’s deaths in prison (5 of 13). While there is data on BME women up to 2017, the data on the deaths of BME women in prisons from 2018 onwards was not available.
The Government’s Youth Justice Statistics state that between March 2010 and March 2020, there were 6 deaths in youth custody. The Fatal Incident Reports on the PPO website do not disclose the ethnic background of any of the deceased children, though the Youth Custody Service’s recently decided to publish statistics on the ‘Safety in the children and young people secure estate’ from 29 April 2021.
The most up-to-date statistics for the last quarter of 2020 and first quarter 2021 are available here.
Immigration Detainee Deaths
The Home Office has the administrative power to detain persons subject to immigration control for the purpose of establishing their identity, on suspicion that they are illegal entrants or overstayers, or for deportation or removal. The power to detain can be exercised on a person’s arrival to the UK or at any time thereafter: following an immigration raid; once a decision to remove has been issued; following arrest by a police officer; or after the conclusion of a prison sentence.
The decision to detain is an administrative process and not requiring prior authorisation by UK courts. Immigration detainees do not receive automatic legal advice or representation and there is no time limit on the detention period, only that it must be for a “reasonable period”. Detention will be reviewed after 24 hours, 7 days, 14 days, then every month from the date of detention.
People who have lived in the UK since childhood, those fleeing war and persecution, LGBTQI+ asylum seekers, torture survivors and victims of human trafficking can all be detained indefinitely in the following facilities: Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) – Brook House, Colnbrook, Dungavel (Scotland), Harmondsworth, Morton Hall, Tinsley House, and Yarl’s Wood; Short-Term Holding Facilities (STHFs) Pennine House and Larne House (Northern Ireland); Pre-departure Accommodation facilities (PDAs) at Gatwick Airport; Short-term Holding Rooms based at ports of entry and in prisons.
According to the UK government’s quarterly statistics, the number of people remaining in detention at the end of each calendar year has decreased every year, yet only fell below 1,000 people in 2020, as immigration judges released detainees because of the pandemic.
|Year||No. of People in Detention|
According to IRR and INQUEST’s latest statistics, between 2014-2019, a total of 15 people have died in immigration detention, with 7 deaths occurring in 2017. Morton Hall IRC is the location of 4 deaths (26%) while Harmondsworth, Colnbrook and Verne IRCs each had 2 deaths.
Medical neglect (5) and suicide (4) accounted for a significant number of deaths, while murder by another detainee occurred once, in the case of Tarek Chowdhury in December 2016.