As Inquest into a young Black woman’s death in notorious UK prison begins, family & supporters know they’re facing an uphill battle to secure justice
A year after her death in police custody, Sarah Reed’s family are still haunted by the number of tragic events which caused her to allegedly take her own life at just 32 years of age while on remand at Holloway prison. Considering her history of mental health struggles, campaigners say she should never have been placed an institution ill-equipped and for some, unwilling to cater to her complex needs.
Sarah had struggled with mental health issues for over a decade following a horrific ordeal in which she and her partner lost their baby and were made to transport the body from the hospice to the undertakers in a taxi in 2003. According to friends she never recovered and spent the following years battling with severe depression.
In 2012 she was viciously attacked by a police officer who dragged her to the ground, grabbed her hair and repeatedly punched her in the head whilst arresting her on suspicion of shoplifting. When CCTV footage of the attack went viral, the police officer in question was dismissed and eventually convicted of assault. Her family say the attack affected her already fragile mindstate, making her deeply fearful of tall Caucasian men and causing her to often return to her mothers home to sleep in her bed for protection.
Over the years she was occasionally sectioned in mental health institutions and the final sequence of her life began when she was detained under section 3 of the mental health act at Maudsley hospital in Camberwell, South London. She was arrested on charged of wounding with intent while still a patient at the hospital.
According to Lee Jasper, a longstanding community activist who has played a key role in campaigning for the Reed family, Sarah wrote her family to explain that she had acted in self defense in attempt to fend off “a dirty white pervert” who had tried to rape her. Nonetheless she was arrested and sent to Holloway prison, which has was closed only last year after reports of sexual harassment, bullying and poor hygiene.
In March 2002, Managers at the prison were transferred to other prisons following an inquiry by the Prison Service which supported some of these claims. On 11th January her mother, Ms Marlylin Reed was informed that she had died.
Deborah Coles, the chief executive of inquest, a charitable advice and support service for deaths in custody victims, believes there a wide number of institutions whose roles must be considered;
“The fundamental question is why women like Sarah Reed, with a well-documented history of mental illness, are ever imprisoned in the first place.”
“The investigation into her death must consider the role of the Crown Prosecution Service, courts, mental health services and prison and whether their failings contributed to her death.”
The cause of her death has been widely contested; after her family were initially told by the prison that she had hanged herself and then that she had strangled herself in whilst in her bed. As the inquest begins this week, her family are desperate for answers but sadly aware of the long history of injustices, which have afflicted those in similar situations.
Mr Jasper, a former senior advisor to the Mayor of London, has represented the family for close to 18 months and says securing justice for Sarah will be an uphill struggle.
“We have to remember that every single authority involved, the prison, the mental services etc will be represented by teams of lawyers – so as we enter this inquest we know it will be our team against possibly three or four others – it’s incredibly difficult.”
“The strength of the case comes down to the fact that she was denied her medication and was treated as though she was willfully breaking the law or uncooperative when what she really need was her medication.”
As an inquest is essentially a fact finding mission, the hope is that the jury return an “unlawful killing” verdict which would then lead to a prosecution. Nonetheless, while numerous unlawful killing verdicts have led to prosecutions, none have translated into successful convictions in recent times. Since 1990, 1613 have died in police custody and no officers have been convicted.
Mr Jasper says a number of critical changes need to made to stem the tide of Deaths in Police custody in the UK.
“Firstly people suffering from mental health illnesses should never be placed in prisons, too many have died in prison cells like Sara and its clear officers do not have the training to keep them safe.”
“At the same time we need to ensure that whenever a police officer is involved in a death they should be immediately suspended. Too often these officers are still able to access files and shape the narrative of what took place from within the station – they should be suspended pending thorough investigations.”
The inquest begins on Tuesday 4th July at the city of London coroner court. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org