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Sarah Reed's Death in Custody Shows How Britain Treats Vulnerable Black Prisoners

The details of her death fall into a shocking pattern of callousness.
February 5, 2016, 1:25pm

Sarah Reed. Photo courtesy of Lee Jasper

Three weeks ago, Sarah Reed died at HMP Holloway. It has taken until this week for her death to come to light, a fact made even more worrying when we consider that she was a black woman with a history of mental health problems who had previously experienced a violent assault at the hands of Metropolitan Police constable James Kiddie—a case that led to a conviction and his dismissal from the Met.

Lee Jasper, an anti-racism activist and former Senior Policy Advisor to the Mayor of London, is acting as the family's liaison until they are ready to talk to the press. According to a post on his blog, Sarah's family received a call from the prison on January 11 informing them that she had been found dead in her cell at 8AM. They say that the explanation they were given was that she had strangled herself lying in her own bed.


They were called to the prison to identify her body, but say that on arriving they were prevented from seeing her and have described being treated in a "hostile and aggressive manner." They were offered no comfort for their shocking loss.

The reported details are sparse so far, but already one gets the uncomfortable feeling of having heard this before. Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett is a campaigner with the United Friends and Family Campaign. She told me about her similar experience on the death of her brother, Leon Patterson, in police custody. "My twin was beaten during arrest and he died in a police station cell. When the family arrived to identify his body, they split us up and would only allow us to see him through a glass window, all the while telling us that he had inflicted his injuries on himself. That was 22 years ago and yet it seems this is still happening, despite our calls for accountability and justice."

The Reed family have highlighted that Sarah had been in custody at the Maudsley Hospital after being sectioned and detained under the Mental Health Act 1983. Her history of severe mental ill-health went back to 2003, when her newborn baby became unwell and suddenly died. In October 2014, Sarah was arrested while in hospital, after, Sarah says, she had defended herself against a sexual assault. She was later remanded in custody before trial at London's women's prison, Holloway. Despite the recognized concerns about her health and mental stability, she was held in prison.

A protester holds a 'Black Lives Matter' banner at a solidarity demonstration for Mike Brown in London, 2015. Photo by Jake Lewis

The issue of deaths in police custody has become fairly well-known; people being left handcuffed and unresponsive for minutes at a time, or dangerously drunk people left to sleep it off in a cell rather than being taken to hospital—that kind of thing is news. But the same is not true about deaths that occur within the prison system. Raising public awareness about the need for state accountability is hard enough, but the difficulty is magnified when it occurs in a part of society that is often forgotten about and hardly ever seen by the majority. Last year 256 people died in English and Welsh prisons. This year already, 27 deaths have occurred, with six of those yet to be categorized. Since 1990, an estimated 3,807 people have died in prison. These figures include suicides, which speaks to the concerns about mental health care in prisons raised since the death of Sarah Reed.

According to the Prison Reform Trust, 30 percent of women and 10 percent of men had previously been admitted to psychiatric care before they entered prison. The Centre for Mental Health also note that women in custody are five times more likely to have mental health problems than other women. Prisons are not hospitals, and those who would be sectioned under the Mental Health Act should be transferred to NHS care at a secure hospital. But the Centre for Mental Health found in 2011 that generally, there are severe delays in this process of transfer.


Since Lee Jasper made public for the first time information about Sarah Reed's death at his blog on Tuesday, many have expressed their outrage and dismay at the case on social media. Jasper and others have been using the #SayHerName hashtag employed by the US BlackLivesMatter movement, particularly in relation to the case of Sandra Bland, to draw links between the two deaths. In 2015 Bland was found dead in a Texas county jail cell where the state claims she killed herself. Protests around the United States questioned both the motives for and circumstances of her death.

Similarly Sarah Reed's family have questioned why she was arrested at the Muadsley Hospital, linking the 2014 conviction and dismissal of PC James Kiddie—for beating and punching Sarah in the head after being called to arrest her at a Uniqlo on Regent Street—with her arrest the following year while in mental health care. Lee Jasper says, after speaking with her family: "The fact that Sarah had previously challenged racist and violent Metropolitan Police Officer who was later sacked leads the family to suspect that she was targeted for arrest under any pretense, as an act of retribution."

Jasper also suggests that the circumstances surrounding Sarah's death and the claim that she had strangled herself as "an almost physical impossibility" and this question has resonated with many of those calling for clarity around this case.

It is troubling enough that someone can experience a serious instance of state brutality once in their life. The possibility this could have happened twice to Sarah Reed is shocking. In the last few years we have found that state violence is all too often inflicted on black people, who also suffer disproportionately from poor mental health and care. Yet when these instances of brutality take place in the closed environment of a prison, they get even less attention than their counterparts in the outside world. Prison regulations mean that news often gets out slowly and is heavily controlled by those running the institutions.

When being a prisoner all too often means being poor, being black, and being vulnerable due to metal health problems, we cannot afford to ignore deaths like Sarah Reed's.

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