Dying for Justice:  New Report on UK Deaths in Police Custody

Dying for Justice: New Report on UK Deaths in Police Custody

(l-r) Deborah Coles, Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett, Lord Herman Ouseley, Harmit Athwal, Jenny Bourne & Colin Prescod.

(l-r) Deborah Coles, Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett, Lord Herman Ouseley, Harmit Athwal, Jenny Bourne & Colin Prescod.

Of the 509 Cases of BME deaths in custody in suspicious circumstances that we have examined between 1991 and 2014, the majority, 348, took place in prison, 137 in police custody and twenty-four in the immigration detention estate.  One in three of the total deaths were as a result of self-harm and in sixty-four cases the person was known to have mental health problems(Dying for Justice, pg. 4).

Joy Garnder, died in 1993 due to brain injuries after police gagged her with 13 feet of adhesive tape while serving a deportation order. Her story is highlighted on pg. 31.


Over the next two years, 'unnamed police sources' fed to the media accusations that Duggan was a known and dangerous 'gangster'.  In the story after story the same photo appeared, of Duggan the hard man, staring defiantly into the camera as if no one and nothing could touch him.  Hidden by the head-and-shoulders frame, cropped from a larger photo, was the floral heart-shaped plaque he was holding in his hands as he attended the grave of his still-born daughter.  Not defiance, but grief(Dying for Justice, pg. 70).


Yesterday, the Institute of Race Relations launched Dying for Justice, a report on the structural issues surrounding the deaths of 509 people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME), refugee and migrant communities who have died between 1991–2014 in suspicious circumstances in which the police, prison authorities or immigration detention officers have been implicated.  Dying for Justice is the follow-up to the 1991 report, Deadly Silence:  black deaths in custody

The report is especially salient, considering that it connects the dots between institutional structures, such as the media, prosecutorial services and private companies like G4S that are commissioned for security and deportation services.  It draws out statistical and systemic analysis on the failure to address mental health concerns and overall disregard for the safety of those in prison, police custody and immigration detention.  This comes on the heels of a shocking investigative journalistic report on the Yarlswood Immigration Removal Centre, outsourced to a private company in 2007, in which guards said 'let them slash their wrists,' and referred to self-harm among the female inmates as 'attention-seeking'.

Edited by Harmit Athwal and Jenny Bourne, the report is not meant as a comparative study and does not assert that BME communities are the only ones affected, as white working class victims also face an extreme lack of care.  But, as Harmit Athwal argues, the issue compounds the institutional racism identified decades ago with the Macpherson Inquiry: “If the Macpherson report was intended as a way of restoring community faith in the British police, the issue of deaths in custody is the one which is constantly undermining it.  As more deaths take place and no one is ever prosecuted, it inevitably sows seeds of incredulity, anger and despair.” The report further states that its aim is "to flag up the processes - which run from austerity measures and media portrayal to diehard closing of ranks and blatant cover ups - through which a death takes place with impunity. How BME people are treated is in fact the litmus test of the whole system" (pg. 4).

Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett, whose twin brother Leon Patterson died in police custody in 1992, helped introduce the report.   She spoke of the toxicologist tasked with investigating her brother’s death having admitted that he had fabricated medical evidence to make it look as though Patterson had died of a heroin overdose.  This evidence was presented at the first two inquests held to determine Patterson’s cause of death before the toxicologist confessed. The toxicologist was not held to account legally for his actions.  According to Inquest, “for the last 20 hours of his life despite being seen by two police doctors he was left lying naked, his body covered in injuries, on a stone floor groaning and incoherent.” No one has been prosecuted, and Lightfoot-Bennett, a fierce campaigner on behalf of families who have lost loved ones in police custody, is still waiting for a death certificate to be issued.  (To read about the various other failures to properly care for Patterson, read Inquest’s report here).

Deboarah Coles, Co-Director of Inquest, highlighted that deaths in custody tend not to be regarded or investigated as ‘real’ crimes, and that indifference and impunity have become a systemic problem in this regard.  She also noted that families of victims have had to force the issue of deaths in police custody onto the political agenda through tireless campaigning.  

The importance of the report was underscored by Marcia Rigg, sister of Sean Rigg who died in 2008 in police custody.  Rigg noted similarities among various instances of death in custody, such as missing CCTV evidence.  She also emphasised that the length of time that passes before cases are resolved (years or decades, if at all) are traumatic for the families of those who have died.

Lord Herman Ouseley, who chaired the press conference in the House of Lords, introduced the report, highlighting its accessibility.  Colin Prescod, Chair of the IRR Board, noted that equally important as reporting the number of deaths is acknowledging the struggles of the family members, as their stories are just as harrowing and just as important as those of their deceased loved ones. 

Read the full Dying for Justice report here

For more information, please visit the websites:  Institute of Race RelationsInquest, and follow the United Families and Friends Campaign on Twitter at @UFFCampaign.  

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