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Calls grow for a death-in-custody inquiry

by Lester Holloway and Victoria Onabolu

CALLS FOR the government to launch a public inquiry into deaths in custody are growing after a report revealed the full extent of fatalities.

In danger: prisoners are at high risk
In danger: prisoners are at high risk

Demands for a full inquiry into the phenomenon of custody deaths coincides with legal moves by Leon Wilson, the son of police victim Christopher Alder, to win a public inquiry.

He launched a court action to force Home Secretary David Blunkett to order an inquiry following the death of his father, who choked on his own blood and vomit on a floor of a Hull police station as officers stood around laughing and chatting. 

Blunkett has refused to bow to calls from bereaved families for a public inquiry, despite Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy declaring he favours such a process in order to restore community confidence.


Yesterday MP&#39s delivered a hardhitting report laying bare the &#39deeply worrying&#39 upward trends in custody deaths. The all-party Joint Committee on Human Rights found that every day someone dies in the criminal justice or mental health systems in &#39questionable circumstances.&#39

 - quote - There is an urgent obligation on the government to deal with disquite about deaths in custody and its&#39 legacy  - unquote -
Deborah Coles – Inquest

Deborah Coles, co-director of campaign group Inquest, told Blink the case for a custody deaths public inquiry was irresistible.

She said: “The report vindicates everything family campaigns have said about the failure of the state to protect life.

“It makes a strong statement about the lack of confidence families have in the state to deliver care and to deliver justice. There is now an urgent obligation on the government to deal with disquite about deaths in custody and its&#39 legacy.”

The report supported calls for a public inquiry into child deaths in custody, following concern over the death of 16-year-old Joseph Scholes.


Over 1000 people have died in police, prison or mental health custody since 1969. The Commons report found that on average one person dies every day in custody. Around 100 of those die after coming into contact with the police.

MP&#39s said Britain was failing to protect the rights of prisoners, 434 of whom took their own lives between 1999 and 2003. Ninety-three prisoners, including 13 women and three immigration detainees, have taken their own lives so far in 2004, while about 80 people detained in psychiatric hospitals will kill themselves this year.

Committee chair Jean Corston said: “we have seen time and time again that extremely vulnerable people are entering custody with a history of mental illness, drug and alcohol problems and potential for taking their own lives.

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“These highly vulnerable people are being held within a structure glaringly ill-suited to meet even their basic needs.”

Even though Black people are over-represented in police custody deaths, the Joint Committee report found that the opposite was the case for self-inflicted prison suicides. 91% of such deaths were white, compared to 78% of the prison population.

Brenda Weinberg, chair of the United Families and Friends Campaign, which represents the families of death in custody victims, said she did not have faith that an inquiry to bring about change.

She added: “It might be a cynical view but these sort of inquiries are launched every twenty years or so and is unlikely that an inquiry into deaths in custody will be launched.”

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