Shine A Light

Dying for Justice: black and minority ethnic deaths in custody

509 suspicious deaths of people from BME, migrant and asylum seeker communities in state custody over 23 years. Five prosecutions. Not one single conviction. A chilling report from the Institute of Race Relations.

Jenny Bourne
28 March 2015

Twenty-six years it has taken the families of the 96 killed at Hillsborough to force out the confession from police chief inspector David Duckenfield that he had lied about procedures on that fateful day in 1989 and was in fact responsible for the  crowd surge which ultimately killed so many.

On 23 March in the House of Lords, Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett, holding back her tears, told a meeting how she was still having to fight twenty-two years after the death of her twin brother Leon Patterson in Manchester to find out how he died and make the authorities take responsibility.

She was there to support the launch of a report from the Institute of Race Relations on 509 suspicious deaths of people from BME, migrant and asylum seeker communities in police, prison custody and the detention estate between 1991 and 2014, which have resulted in just five prosecutions and not one conviction in a quarter of a decade – so stacked is the system in favour of our custodians. Hundreds of confused, bereaved, and frustrated families are all still, in the report’s title, dying for justice.

The research shows that the majority of deaths, 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. Medical neglect was a contributory factor in forty-nine cases and in forty-eight the use of force appears to have contributed to a person’s death.

It is ironic that in the same week that former Equality and Human Rights Commission boss Trevor Phillips  comforted the nation on his Channel 4 TV programme (‘The thing we won’t say about race that are true’) that it was fine to speak in ethnic stereotype, such a  damning a report  should be published.


For it reveals how, on occasion, young men of Caribbean descent acting erratically or even asking for help, are stereotyped first and foremost as bad, mad, and, being black, likely to be involved in drugs and/or violent – so they are met with violence. (According to INQUEST of 54 people killed in police shootings since 1990, nine were from BME communities.)

Force (including restraints, sprays, batons, guns) was involved in forty-eight  deaths examined in this report. And the stereotype has being extended to other deprived communities who are being prejudged as ‘up to no good’ or simply of no account, not deserving of courtesy or care – Joy Gardner (an overstayer), Ibrahima Say (a Gambian asylum seeker), Zahid Mubarek (a British Asian teenager in a young offenders’ institute for a petty theft), Jimmy Mubenga (a foreign national prisoner).

The culture, aided and abetted by politicians and the mass media, has, over the last thirty years, been impregnated with views which encourage suspicion and contempt for whole groups of people who are surplus to requirements of, or antithetical to, the neoliberal project. Asylum seekers, Muslims, the young never-employed (who may eke out a dubious living) are not just demonised daily in the tabloids as terrorist, shirkers and scroungers, but set apart from society. They are not part of us – in fact they are undermining ‘usness’.

But what compounds the ‘us and them’ of the system is the impunity enjoyed by the police, prison and immigration/detention officers. Despite twelve verdicts of unlawful killing from inquest juries recently, there have been just a handful of prosecutions and never a conviction. For, invariably, the officer is deemed to have used force proportionate to the threat he felt he was under. His fear will always be subjective, unmeasurable, and the ultimate self-defence. Note that the Independent Police Complaints Commission has just cleared the police in the case of Mark Duggan (who was shot dead in Tottenham in August 2011) of any wrongdoing since it was likely they thought he was throwing away a handgun.

One of the most vexed issues to emerge from the research is that of accountability. Though there have been verdicts of unlawful killing, these are often contested at a higher court and sometimes reversed, or simply not followed up by prosecution, and inevitably no one is found guilty of any wrongdoing. Internal discipline or punishment is either non-existent or fleeting and mild, implicated officers retire or resign before procedures have taken their course. And the privatisation of detention services has diminished accountability yet further. The chain of command is long, the responsibility for the well- or ill-being of an inmate is sub-contracted.

One of the recent changes, and which is reflected in the spike of deaths in 2007, for example, is the detention of asylum seekers, unwanted migrant workers and foreign national prisoners whose prison terms are spent. Detention centres (now termed removal centres) are part of a growth industry, now largely sub-contracted to the private sector (as are an increasing number of prisons) where huge multinational companies such as G4S, Serco, GEO, Mitie order the lives of prisoners and waiting deportees. In this parallel system of detention where frightened anxious detainees often self-harm, medical care is not required  to be of the standard supplied by the NHS. The private companies have simple targets: to make sure the deportee is fit to travel.

These are closed worlds in which, after a death, officers inevitably close rank and the authorities hold all the cards – including access to information and money for legal representation. But still they learn little from inquiries into deaths, reports, narrative verdicts at inquests and new guidelines, though  families and friends of the bereaved do. And, as the report reveals, the tenacity of groups campaigning against conditions for those in immigration detention and of bereaved families fighting through networks such as the United Families and Friends Campaign, and INQUEST has begun to have a public impact and taken the struggle into the heart of the system.

The IRR's report, Dying for Justice, by Harmit Athwal and Jenny Bourne, can be accessed here. Main image: Sujata Aurora. Jacket image: Vigil for Mikey Powell, September 2012. (© Ken Fero/Migrant Media) 

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