The very mention of custody deaths brings to mind nasty foreign repressive regimes. But these deaths happen in Britain, too - on average, one a week in police custody alone. Then there are the deaths in immigration detention centres and in prisons, including children. Many of these deaths occur under dubious circumstances. Moreover, those in custody may not not have been convicted of any crime and are supposed to be presumed innocent.
The suicide rate is much greater in custody - as much as 18 times the UK average for young males, and disproportionately large among black people, especially as a result of "the excessive use of force by functionaries of the state", according to the group Inquest [example]. Deaths can also occur as a result of deliberate police inaction.
There is a lack of transparency in investigations into deaths in custody and very long delays before inquests (up to five years in some cases) as well as lack of accountability after juries return 'unlawful killing' verdicts. Of those verdicts since 1990, which the group Inquest is aware of, 18 police officers were prosecuted but all were acquitted. As far as is known, no police officer has ever been brought to justice for such killings.
Links: United Friends and Family Campaign’s annual Remembrance Procession (2006) | 19 minute video | photos Guido, Real2Reel, Marc Vallée | 2005 (photo report) | 2003 (photos & audio) | Ireland 2006 part 1, part 2.
In its Corporate Manslaughter Bill 2006 committee stage briefing, Inquest is very concerned that the police may now be explicitly exempted from prosecution in cases of custody deaths. They say, "We strongly object to the explicit exemptions in the Bill that allow specified public bodies to escape prosecution when their activities cause the death of members of the public. We do not believe it is justified that police, prisons, emergency services and child custody services should be immune from prosecution in relation to these deaths".
In their report, human rights group Liberty claim that the system for dealing with deaths in custody in England and Wales breaches the European Convention on Human Rights. The report condemns the current system as often 'ineffective, secretive, slow and insufficiently independent'. It calls for deaths in police custody, prisons and secure hospitals to be investigated independently.
The police sometimes try to suppress or deflect evidence. The screening of a documentary exploring the experiences of some of the relatives of those who have died in custody was cancelled by threats of legal action . An article in the Guardian said, "A frequent complaint is that police try to assassinate the character of a family's loved one to deflect attention. The worst treatment is sometimes at the hands of a 'family liaison officer' who sees it as their job to investigate the victim. This might include demanding addresses of friends and relatives coming to pay condolences, or asking about past dealings with the police and about the deceased's mood in the days leading up to the fatal encounter."
There have been 9 annual protests against custody deaths organised by the United Families and Friends Campaign.
Here is just a sample of articles on this issue from the Indymedia Newswire.
Licence to kill? | Prison Ombudsman finally releases report. | More Black Deaths in Custody in Lambeth. | 12 Deaths in Immigration Custody. | Police Violently repress [peacful] PEACEFUL protest in Brixton. | Pauline Campbell nicked at Eastwood Park Prison/YOI/mother & baby unit. | Kenny Peter's Inquest Points to Asylum Failures | Deaths in Custody: [Pickett]PICKET the IPPC.
Homepages of just a few family campaigns