BME Deaths in Custody 2014 – 2023

BME Deaths in Custody 2014 – 2023

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.

List of Deaths in Custody


The reason that there is concern over BME and migrant and refugee deaths in custody is not only  because of a disproportion in overall numbers of such deaths, but also  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 inform the way in which they are treated. Foreign national prisoners and  migrants and refugees in immigration detention, who come from diverse ethnic and national backgrounds, are also subjected to prejudice with their treatment, in turn, reflecting, the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies (i.e., polices that make it difficult for migrants to live in the UK). It also appears that in some cases  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 by the police, precipitating a situation in which previously physically fit men lose their lives. In relation to this, in April 2024, the  police’s use  (in the categorisation of restraint deaths) of   the  pseudoscientific  term  ‘excited delirium’, which plays on racial tropes about black men having superhuman strength,  came  under  scrutiny, leading the  Independent Office for Police Conduct to prohibit the police from using the term in incident forms.   For a discussion of the seriousness of issues related to BME and migrant and refugee deaths in custody  see the government-commissioned Angioloni Review,  Deaths of Racialised People in prison 2015-2022 (INQUEST)  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 and 2021 in England and Wales. 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. Recent analysis carried out by INQUEST reveals  that black people in Britain are seven times more likely than white people to die following restraint by police and that official data, by using a limited dataset, has underestimated the number of police restraint-related deaths.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) collects data on fatal 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 shows that 23% of total deaths in or following police custody between 2015 and 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 3.5% of England’s population as per Office for National Statistics 2019.

In recent years, a growing number of young men have died in incidents following the use of force by security guards, or a mixture of security guards, members of the public and police officers. Though such deaths do not fit easily into official definitions of what constitutes a death in police custody, they reflect the growth of private security companies in public settings throughout the UK. Although security guards do not have the powers of the police, under the terms of Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967,  they can use  ‘reasonable force’ in certain situations. Where relevant, we have included deaths linked to private security companies

Prison Deaths

Recent data analysis carried out by INQUEST indicates that between 1 January 2015 and 31 December 2021, 2,220 people died in prison, of which  (354) were racialised people. The fifteen deaths of racialised women made up 21% of all deaths of women in prison whilst the 339 deaths of racialised men made up 16% of all deaths of men in prison.

When a person dies in the custody of police, questions are asked in the community, generating reporting in the local and national  media. There is far less media scrutiny of  prisons, which are closed systems and geographically isolated. INQUEST is also concerned that there has been a failure to address issues of racism and discrimination in post-death investigations, fatal incident reports and inquests. In its most recent report, INQUEST catalogued the preventable and premature  deaths  in prison of  twenty-two ‘racialised people’, comprising  Black and mixed-race people; Asian and mixed-race people; Middle Eastern and mixed-race people; people of Eastern European nationality; White Irish people and White Gypsy or Irish Traveller people. As in police deaths, lawyers and campaigners are not necessarily arguing that a disproportionate number of BME people die in prison custody. They are however concerned that BME populations, particularly men, are over-represented in prisons where they experience worse treatment than White men. They draw attention to systemic racism in the prison estate, from the racial stereotyping that sees young Black men as a  discipline and control problem and leads to a ‘culture of disbelief’, justifying lack of  medical attention or  inappropriate use of segregation, to the hostile environment  that impacts on the  mental health of foreign nationals through prolonged detention and fear of deportation.

Journalists should refer to the Samaritans Media Guidelines for reporting suicide and self-harm and guidance for reporting on inquests. 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.


Freedom of Information request revealed that between January 2006 and December 2017, 13% of the 99 deaths in women’s prisons (thirteen deaths) were BME women. There were three deaths in both 2016 and 2017, two deaths in 2006 and 2011, one death in 2012, 2014, and 2015. There were 2 deaths each in Holloway, Bronzefield, Styal, and Foston Hall prisons. There was one death in Cookham Wood, Peterborough, and Drake Hall prisons, respectively. Of the thirteen deaths, four deaths were classified as self-inflicted with three BME women found hanged, and eight deaths were classified as natural causes. Medical negligence contributed to 38% of BME women’s deaths in prison (five out of thirteen). 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 six deaths in youth custody. The Fatal Incident Reports on the Prison and Probation Ombudsman  website do not disclose the ethnic background of any of the deceased children, though the Youth Custody Service recently decided to publish statistics on ‘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.


According to the law those in the custody of prisons or the immigration estate should have the same access to healthcare as anyone in the community. But in practice this is often not the case. Though the NHS is tasked with commissioning the care, providers can be from within the private sector. Although prisoners and immigration detainees are more likely to have physical or mental health problems than others, care is not always provided to meet their needs. Initial assessments on admission are often cursory and without special attention paid to safeguarding and potential risk, particularly of self-harm. Records of previous interventions and medication become lost in the system and necessary follow-ups do not take place. Access to medical support is through those tasked with custodial duties and staff can be slow or negligent in ensuring that such support is obtained for detainees or offenders. A number of organisations including INQUEST, Medical Justice, the British Medical Association, Medact have reported on concerns about healthcare provision in prisons and immigration detention.

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 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; They can be detained for up to four days (increased from 24 hours in December 2022) in Short-Term Holding Facilities (STHFs) Pennine House and Larne House (Northern Ireland); Manston, Tug Haven and other STHFs in Kent; Pre-departure Accommodation facilities (PDAs) at Gatwick Airport; Short-term Holding Rooms based at ports of entry and in prisons.

According to IRR and INQUEST’s latest statistics, between 2014-2019, a total of fifteen people have died in immigration detention, with seven deaths occurring in 2017. Morton Hall IRC is the location of four deaths (26%) while Harmondsworth, Colnbrook and Verne IRCs each had two 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.

Foreign National Prisoners (FNPs), can be subjected to immigration removal procedures at the end of their sentences, and can be held in prison pending deportation. In our list of detention deaths, we deal with deaths related to deportation procedures against FNPs in the prisons section.