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“Contentious, Violent and Neglectful” – Freedom of Information Requests Shine A Light Onto The Deaths Of Racialised People In Prisons In England & Wales

With thanks to INQUEST for their tireless work and illuminating report, Deaths of racialised people in prison 2015 – 2022: Challenging racism and discrimination, the main source for this blog and without which we would not have this data. I have adopted the terms used by the Report as they have been carefully considered and an explanation provided for each. For a more detailed analysis please review INQUEST’S report in full.

In a world where information is currency and provides a foundation to drive public demand for change, there is a disconcerting lack of data in the public sphere on the fatal consequences of institutional racism in prison.

In a national context of pervasive discrimination, with heightened criminalisation and disproportionate incarceration of racialised people, it can be fairly assumed that at the sharp end vulnerable people are experiencing an intersection of discriminatory policy and enforcement concentrated within the prison system.

INQUEST and other independent organisations recognised this vacuum and Freedom of Information requests were made to the Ministry of Justice regarding the ethnicities of people who died in prison between 2015 and 2022. The lack of any available official data in this area is evidence in itself of the de-prioritisation and dismissal of the experiences of racialised people in criminal justice institutions.

The resulting data reflects the dilution of protective anti-discrimination policy following the Race and Ethnic Disparities Report in 2021, which denied the existence of structural racism in the UK. Simultaneous investment and expansion of the criminal justice system will inevitably continue to facilitate the criminalisation of racialised groups. As highlighted in the Report’s historical overview, racial minority men have consistently reported worse experiences and outcomes in prison when compared to White men. There has up until this point been little to no interrogation of the reasons behind this.

The Results

INQUEST’S data analysis across the years 2015 – 2022 is set out in full in the Report. Of 2,220 people who died in prison during the period, the deaths of racialised people were not disproportionate to their representation in the prison population. However, vitally they were among some of the most contentious, violent and neglectful. By comparison, White people held the highest percentage of deaths by natural causes in prison and also died at the highest average age. It is important to consider these nuances against the data, something that any government mandated collection of data on the prison system has thus far failed to do.

It is also of note that more than a quarter of people who died in prison during this time took their own lives, and that in 2021 371 people died in prison which is the highest toll in England and Wales ever recorded.


In their analysis of the data obtained, INQUEST has identified several critical issues that are common factors in the deaths of racialised people. These, briefly summarised, are as follows:

In their analysis of the data obtained, INQUEST has identified several critical issues that are common factors in the deaths of racialised people. These, briefly summarised, are as follows:

  1. Inappropriate use of segregation
    A common tactic in prisons is the segregation of prisoners with mental health issues, with a marked inadequacy of assessment of a person’s suitability for segregation. Prison policy usually sets out segregation as being appropriate only in exceptional circumstances, yet case studies demonstrate people in evident physical or mental distress being subjected not only to separation but to inhumane and degrading treatment. This included withholding of food and prescribed medical treatment. In some cases the physical restraint of a segregated prisoner was of such an oppressive level that it led to their death.
  2. Racial stereotyping
    Throughout the case studies reviewed by INQUEST, both male and female Black and mixed-race prisoners were stereotyped as aggressive as an apparent justification for disciplinary treatment. Their experiences of physical or mental trauma were disbelieved by prison staff and, more problematically, healthcare workers which delayed their treatment. By labelling people as aggressive, challenging or non-compliant their actual and acute vulnerabilities are obscured. Often recorded in place of support was oppressive and sometimes violent responses by staff.
  3. Hostile environment
    Another trend running through the studies of deaths of racialised people was threat of deportation or continuing indefinite immigration detention. This is no doubt a result of a broader hostile landscape and policy of deportation of foreign nationals. In the context of Suella Braverman’s ‘brave new world’ in which she envisions only “legal migration” and dismisses asylum seekers as meritless and “abusing our system”, it is unsurprising that foreign nationals in prison are being detained excessively, without any foreseeable outcome. In more than one scenario prisoners that were notified of their deportation insensitively or callously later took their own lives.
  4. Neglect of physical and mental health
    A culture of downplaying serious health conditions and symptoms of deterioration, both physical and mental, are allowing preventable illnesses to overwhelm racialised prisoners. Due to inadequate health assessments, which are delayed or do not happen at all, by the time prison and health staff recognise the gravity of a situation it is often too late. In the meantime prisoners are experiencing severe distress which tragically often has fatal outcomes. The lack of effective communication between staff, families and the prisoners themselves is endemic and has left bereaved families with little to no explanation of the circumstances of their loved one’s death, or what caused it.
  5. Failure to respond to warning signs
    Intrinsically linked to the neglect of physical and mental health is prison staff’s failure to identify or respond to warning signs, sometimes as clear as a prisoner asking for help and explaining that they are severely unwell. There are emergency cell bells installed in prisons for this very purpose, but policy is not being fulfilled and staff rarely answer within the 5 minute requirement. The delays are often the vital minutes during which treatment could be administered. This lack of attentiveness is exacerbated in relation to Black and mixed-race prisoners.
  6. Bullying and victimisation
    Finally, the data demonstrates several cases of bullying of Black and mixed-race men, sometimes also on the basis of their religion. In the prison context victimisation of another prisoner, sometimes a cell-mate, is dangerous by definition and has led to racialised people taking their own life, or being killed. In many of these cases the prisoners themselves and their families have raised concerns multiple times with staff and even the Prison Governor. The failure to act in these instances is demonstrably as damaging to the victims as where the prison has had an active hand in their death.

Human Stories

The Report, although vital in its statistical evidence and analysis, also highlights that each of these figures represents a human story, a family that is left behind with unanswered questions and the end of a life that might have been prevented. To understand the true weight of the results and their impact on communities it is important to read the data in conjunction with 22 stories of racialised people who died in prison across the period, so that their individual lives do not become obscured.

Conclusions and Recommendations

When you try to fathom each of the deaths recorded in INQUEST’S data, the need for transformative change becomes starkly clear. The Report sets out urgent and actionable policy changes that must be implemented as follows:

  • Government funded collection of data and clear reporting and publication of trends of ethnicity and race in prison deaths. This is not the responsibility of not-for-profit organisations and should already be in the public domain.
  • The scrutiny of racism or discrimination as playing a role in the deaths of racialised prisoners in post-death investigations. Any death in prison demands quantitative and qualitative analysis by several indicators, race / ethnicity being one of those.
  • A national oversight mechanism so that recommendations arising from post-death investigations and inquiries have meaningful weight in shaping policy and change.
  • Recognition that the prison system offers little by way of solution to complex issues of crime, rehabilitation and detention. Prisons are dehumanising institutions that exacerbate existing structural racism and target it at the most vulnerable in society. Decreased investment in criminal justice and prison-building and a redirection of resources towards welfare, health, housing, education and social care will better address the root cause of crime and violence in our society.

The prison system is a little-considered microcosm of an already dysfunctional society and approach to criminal justice. Rigorous collection and analysis of data, clear reporting and most importantly a political response favouring a holistic approach to restorative justice, coupled with investment in communities is the only way to bring about watershed change.

If you have been discriminated against based on your ethnicity, contact our leading Civil Liberties & Human Rights Solicitors now on 0330 822 3451 or request a callback.

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