Sunday, April 22, 2012

Deaths in custody, a growing trend

There is a persistent problem with  deaths in custody. No one seems to have kept a total score but putting together the various summaries published makes for disturbing reading.

There were six between March 2011 and April 2012. There were ten between February and October 2010. There were about thirty two in 2009 and about twenty six in 2008. There were only two in 2002.

Although the numbers have fallen from the levels of 2009, there still seems to be a persistent recurrence of the problem and no one seems to want to ask why.

First, why are deaths in custody different from random murders that take place? The difference arises because an arm of the state is potentially involved. Given that the State is supposed to ensure the safety of its inhabitants (not just its citizens, anyone who happens to be around should also enjoy the same level of safety) this is a serious problem. The guardian has, in effect, turned aggressor.

Deaths in custody can cover a wide range of situations. The UK's Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody lists the following areas that are covered by its remit: "deaths, which occur in prisons, in or following police custody, immigration detention, the deaths of residents of approved premises and the deaths of those detained under the Mental Health Act (MHA)". It is something that can occur anywhere, even a suicide in prison is covered.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights is appointed by the House of Lords and the House of Commons in its report on deaths in custody defines its approach thus:

1. When the state takes away the liberty of an individual and places him or her in custody, it assumes full responsibility for protecting that person’s human rights—the most fundamental of which is the right to life. This right, and other human rights which protect people detained by the State, now form part of our law under the Human Rights Act 1998. Yet at a time when we have finally abolished the death penalty in the United Kingdom and few of our prisoners serve whole-life sentences, too many still die in custody. Some of these die, of course, from natural causes. A few are killed by fellow inmates. Others die as a result of actions of officers of the state, often without charges being brought or an effective remedy being made available to family and friends. Most deaths are ‘self-inflicted’, with yet more people in custody, especially women, inflicting upon themselves life-threatening injuries, but surviving.

2. Each and every death in state custody is a death too many, regardless of the circumstances of the person who dies.

The duties of the state towards detainees flows from relevant Human Rights laws. These are not abstract, esoteric issues, they concern the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. They need to understand why these are important, ultimately to protect their own interests, and in the case of the long list of unfortunate victims, their lives.

The fundamental issues need to be addressed and the problem rooted out at its source, otherwise who knows when the next victim will be claimed?


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