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People in detention have been let down by the state during the pandemic, writes Deborah Coles.



As the Covid-19 pandemic spread to the UK, it became clear that the virus could have a particularly devastating impact on people in detention, some of society’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged. They are in the care of the state and are entirely reliant on it for their safety. Time and time again we have seen men, women and children being failed by the systems that are there to protect them. We also see how intersections of race, class, gender and disability have an impact on some of the most marginalised.

Working with the charity Women in Prison, we led a group of 600 organisations and individuals calling on the government to take urgent life-saving steps to reduce the number of people in prisons and immigration detention. There is overwhelming international consensus that this is the only way to minimise the risks during a pandemic. Detention already disproportionately impacts on black, Asian and minority ethnic people, as does Covid-19, so this is a humanitarian and racial justice issue.

Despite the government’s own announcement that a temporary release programme would release up to 4,000 low risk prisoners, only around 130 prisoners had been released by the end of May. We have lagged far behind other countries which have released thousands in order to address the risks posed by the virus: these risks have not gone away.

Long before the pandemic, we were raising concerns about historically high levels of self-inflicted deaths and self-harm in prison and the high rates of incarceration. We have seen indefensible levels of neglect and despair and the stories of those who died show prisons failing in their duty of care towards people already let down by struggling health, education, welfare and social services and by the overuse of prison.

As lockdown relaxed in wider society over the summer, tens of thousands of men, women and children remained in indefinite solitary confinement in already cramped and often insanitary conditions. The harsh reality of spending 23 hours every day behind a locked door cannot be underestimated and risks inhuman and degrading treatment in breach of international standards. A recent spike in self-inflicted deaths in prisons, with five men dying over six days, is of grave concern and points to the impact on mental health of highly restrictive regimes.

Critical, too, is the lack of transparency. As concerns over the spread of the virus became clear, we called on the government to be open about infection rates, conditions and deaths in detention settings. Yet still, the publication of key information relating to people who are detained – who the state is duty-bound to protect – lags far behind that of people in the wider population. This is not just about deaths directly from Covid-19 but those deaths linked to the impact of more restrictive regimes.

It took pressure from INQUEST, campaigners and the parliamentary joint committee on human rights to get any data about deaths in mental health, learning disability and autism inpatient settings. This information has been very slow to produce, is not disaggregated, and there is a paucity of information available about self-inflicted deaths in inpatient units. We were dismayed that despite the requirements of the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Bill, known as “Seni’s Law” to publish data on how and when physical force is used, neither the Care Quality Commission nor NHS England have been able to give any indication of whether instances of forcible restraint and solitary confinement increased or decreased during this period. Ultimately, the greater the level of transparency the greater the opportunity to implement changes to safeguard lives. This information should not have to be fought for.

Even before coronavirus, there were major obstacles put in the way of families whose loved ones had died in detention. Delay, denial and defensiveness too often characterise the response of the state. This has been exacerbated by Covid-19 and the resulting disruption to legal processes. There is an inequality of arms between families with no non-means tested legal aid and public authorities with teams paid for from the public purse. Post-death investigations and inquests into state-related deaths show time and time again that many are preventable and as the result of neglect and systemic failings in care. Officials and ministers repeat the empty words that ‘lessons will be learned’. Yet the recommendations of coroners, independent reviews, investigations and inspections are being systematically ignored.

The brutal killing of George Floyd in the US has rightly brought the issue of racial injustice to the fore. Here as well as in America, we must address excessive state force and neglect whether it be by police, in prisons, immigration centres or mental health settings. There has been a pattern of cases often linked to institutional and structural racism. We will stand alongside the families of those who have died in the search for truth, justice and accountability.

Image credit: Flickr/Eye DJ

Deborah Coles

Deborah Coles is director of INQUEST, a charity providing expertise on state-related deaths and their investigation.


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