Deadly silence: black deaths in custody (introduction)
January 1, 1991 — Comment
Written by A. Sivanandan
One death is a death too many.
Too many of us* have died without cause, since first we came to work for this country in the post-war years, in the custody of the police, the prison system and the special hospitals. Or if cause there be, common to all three, it is the racist bias that has been woven into, and become an inextricable part of, the culture and administration of these ‘services’.
That is not to say that all wrong-doers, prisoners and psychiatric patients are not a citizenry apart, but that black wrong-doers, prisoners, psychiatric patients are, by virtue merely of their blackness, rendered an under-class of that already under-privileged citizenry. Black vagrants are even more readily than their white counterparts the sport and playthings of macho white policemen. Young blacks are frequently stopped and questioned on the basis of no more than a generalised suspicion that if they are black and young and on the streets they can be up to no good. And the way that blacks are subjected to violent arrest stems from another presumption: that blacks are violent and aggressive by nature and must, from the outset, be dealt with violently and aggressively. Violence is the only language they understand, and it is time they knew who was boss.
The contempt for blacks on the streets is carried into the contempt for blacks in their homes, for black family life. The black man’s home is not his castle, even less the black woman’s hers. There is nothing inviolable about the black family.
And prisons presume those presumptions: the statistics tell them that all blacks are potential criminals, the sentencing carries the conviction, it is no longer a matter of prejudice. The proof is in the numbers. The system is justified, it closes in on itself, it brooks no interference from outside – the indifference to black life becomes a fact of prison life. Suicide offers the only release.
If prisons are of their very nature closed-in systems, special hospitals are the demesne of the specialists – and to question their diagnosis of the ‘mentally ill’ is itself an act of madness. And yet, when it comes to young black men, the evidence is of a marked tendency towards diagnoses based on racial stereotypes rather than on individual case histories.
Racial diagnosis, it would appear, over-rides clinical diagnosis. Thus, young Afro-Caribbeans, who exhibit what is considered odd or antisocial behaviour, are commonly diagnosed as schizophrenic – schizophrenia being the disease that blacks are supposed to suffer from disproportionately, either because of some genetic reason or because West Indian family and/or child-rearing patterns create a cultural or ethnic deficit amongst black people as a whole. Little attempt is made to seek the cause of the ‘patient’s’ behaviour in his (and invariably it’s a he) particular history or the anomie visited on him by a racist society. Instead, the ‘illness’ which might well have been caused by the individual’s inability to bear the brutal brunt of racism is further compounded by the racism implicit in the diagnosis and cure. And, so far from getting the care he needs, the patient is even further entered into a syndrome of un-caring from which his ‘illness’ first sought escape. The only escape now is the last. The cycle of discrimination, deprivation and death is complete.
But how do the police, the prisons and the special hospitals get away with it year after year? How does the bias against blacks work itself into the system? How does the culture of racism become policy?
To one extent or another, each of these services is unaccountable to the public in one way or another. And to the extent that they are unaccountable, inaccessible, specialised, to that extent is their power made more absolute. When such institutional power sediments into the hands of individual policemen, prison officers, hospital warders, the service becomes sclerosed against the public.
The structure of the services themselves further adds to that hardening. Ranked, like the army, in a strict hierarchy of command, they too tend to cultivate an ethos of phoney camaraderie by closing ranks when under attack. In the event, the chain of command becomes a chain of cover-up.
To the extent that the police are more immediately in the community, they are that much more vulnerable to public censure. But the lack of an independent complaints system has hindered a real and continuing openness to public scrutiny, never mind accountability, and led instead to the setting up of cosmetic race relations committees (to show ‘liaison’) and to public relations exercises (to forestall criticism). The public, however, and the black communities in particular, continue to break into this closed system with pickets and protests and people’s inquiries.
Prisons and special hospitals, on the other hand, are a world apart, where the wardens are kings and the governor plays God over the lives of prisoners – moving them around as they please, deciding their present and future condition, withholding and affording medical treatment as suits their whim and driving them into insensibility through drugs rather than bringing them to their senses through therapy. Where the Board of Visitors is a sop to Cerberus and prisoners themselves may not bear witness to their condition lest their condition is made to worsen. Where none may enter except through the Home Office – and none may question except through the Home Office. Where, precisely because these are closed-in, unaccountable, hermetically sealed systems, racism goes unchallenged and fascism parades among the guards. Where black suicide is a cold statistic.
And the inquests afford no relief. The coroner is there to tell you the facts of death, not who was responsible for it or why. But even the facts are loaded against you. For the coroner’s court is not an adversarial court where you have an equal chance to challenge the authorised version of the facts. Instead, it is the coroner who, aided by the police, is both judge and advocate, and controls the proceedings of his court. He alone has access to vital information stemming from an internal inquiry, but he is not obliged to divulge it. He alone decides which witnesses to call and in what order the evidence should be presented. He alone sums up and directs the jury, leads them – and tells them to choose from a restricted range of four verdicts, only one of which, ‘unlawful killing’, allows the relatives of the deceased a real chance to reopen the case with a view to prosecution and/or compensation. But such a direction to the jury is observed more in the breach.
Out of 75 cases of black deaths in custody recorded here, only one has resulted in a prosecution (of the police) and only in one has the family of the deceased received compensation.
The rest is silence. Black deaths do not have a good press, especially when they occur in the custody of our custodians. The media leads the public to believe that our guardians can do no wrong. Racism leads them to believe that blacks can do no right. The silence of the custodial system is compounded by the silences of racism.
We have chosen to break that silence.
* By 'us', I mean black people generally. But black people who die in custody are predominantly Afro-Caribbean.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.