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Racism ‘overlooked and ignored’ among UK prison deaths, says new report

For the 22 minority ethnic people highlighted in a new report from INQUEST, imprisonment was a death sentence

Anita Mureithi
25 October 2022, 10.54am

Racial stereotyping was a factor in deaths of minority ethnic prisoners, said INQUEST

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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The role that racism plays in deaths in UK prisons is being “overlooked and ignored”, according to a damning new report by INQUEST, a charity that investigates state-related deaths.

The report found that of the 2,220 people who died in prison in the last seven years, the deaths of people from minority ethnic backgrounds were some of the most “violent, contentious and neglectful”.

Using data obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, the charity analysed information surrounding deaths in prisons between 2015 and 2021 – examining the circumstances that contributed to them, and the subsequent inquests, ombudsman reports and Ministry of Justice responses.

As part of its report, INQUEST also told in greater depth the stories of 22 people who died in custody, all of whom were from Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, mixed-race, white Irish or Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds.

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The study found repeated failures to acknowledge the potential role of racism and discrimination in these deaths, which, INQUEST argues, will lead to failures to prevent future deaths.

Notably, none of the official inquiries into the deaths examined in the report addressed the race or ethnicity of the deceased person.

“The decision to imprison the[se] people… ended up being a death sentence,” said Deborah Coles, the executive director of INQUEST.

Coles called for action that “meaningfully considers the race or ethnicity of those who die in prison, as well as considering the potential role that racism or discrimination has played in their death”.

Anita portfolio infographic

This chart does not include the deaths of two people whose ethnicity was listed as ‘Not stated/ unknown’. Furthermore, in order to highlight the deaths of racialised people, it does not present the 1864 deaths of White people

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Data from INQUEST/chart made by openDemocracy on Canva

Culture of disbelief and inaction

The report did not find that people from minority ethnic backgrounds were disproportionately more likely to die in prison. Among these groups, most deaths – 136 in total – were of Black and mixed-race people.

Natasha Chin’s case is one such example. Natasha, a 39-year-old Black woman, had a history of depression, poor physical health, and alcohol and drug dependency. On arriving at HMP Bronzefield in Surrey in 2016, Natasha complained of feeling unwell. She was placed in the prison’s specialist drug and alcohol wing and prescribed medication.

Her condition deteriorated and she vomited profusely and failed to collect her medication, but healthcare staff didn’t respond to a prison officer’s requests to monitor her condition. Later that evening, after vomiting for at least nine hours, she was locked in her cell. Natasha rang her cell bell, but the bell system was faulty and no one came. She died later that night, after being found unresponsive, less than 36 hours after entering the prison.

An inquest into her death found that there was a “systematic failure through poor governance which led to a lack of basic care” and that her death was “contributed to by neglect”.

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Natasha’s sister, Marsha, said that the family was “shocked to learn of the inadequacies of the care provided to her and the fact that prison staff and management could have prevented her untimely death.”

The report points to a “culture of disbelief” and dismissal regarding physical health, even when concerns were flagged by prisoners, their families and prison staff. This culture of inaction ultimately allowed prisoners’ physical health to deteriorate to a point of no return.

INQUEST also identified a pattern of stereotyping Black and mixed-race prisoners as “aggressive”. This resulted in the inappropriate use of segregation, and an unwillingness from prison staff to help inmates in their most vulnerable moments.

Racism and mental health problems

The UK’s harsh immigration policies have also played a role in prison deaths, the report concluded. Foreign nationals who have served a prison sentence but remain in custody awaiting deportation face a lack of information, translated materials and legal advice.

Take the example of Michal Netyks, a 35-year-old Polish national who had built a life with his family in Wales. In 2017, after serving a short sentence in Liverpool’s Altcourse prison, Michal was told on the morning of his release that he would remain in detention pending possible deportation to Poland.

Documents from the Home Office were only provided to him in English, and the prison immigration officer present that day didn’t speak to Michal or explain that he had a right to appeal.

Michal died by suicide, and an inquest concluded that the immigration deportation process in part contributed to his death.

“We find it extremely difficult to cope with the absence of our beloved son from our lives and keep wondering about the circumstances of his death,” Michal’s parents said.

Natasha rang her cell bell, but the system was faulty and no one came. She died that night, 36 hours after entering the prison

The report examined four deaths of immigration detainees and foreign nationals, three of whom were from eastern European backgrounds. All four were self-inflicted deaths.

Neglect of mental health issues played a key role in other deaths too. Tommy Nicol died by suicide in 2015 after having served six years of an IPP sentence – a type of sentence that can lead to indefinite imprisonment. His sister, Donna Mooney, said that Tommy experienced most of the problems highlighted in the new report.

Tommy, who was of Middle Eastern and mixed-race heritage, was repeatedly described as “aggressive” by prison staff and nurses, according to an investigation by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. Donna says he was denied access to mental health support three times in the years leading up to his death.

“We heard statements from other prisoners following his death about the comments that were being made to him by staff in the prison based on his heritage and his religion, and goading him to do what he did,” she said at INQUEST’s virtual launch for the report, attended by openDemocracy.

Despite this, said Donna, racism wasn’t mentioned at her brother’s inquest. “Every angle should be explored with any death in custody, especially when it's quite evident when certain aspects play into what happened to people,” she said.

Information on the ethnicity of people who die in prison is not routinely made public, except in cases of suicide. To gather data, INQUEST filed FOI requests to the Ministry of Justice.

“It shouldn’t have to be up to organisations to put in [FOI] requests to get that information. It should be publicly available,” said Donna.

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