by New Worker correspondent
THE UNITED Family and Friends (UFFC) campaign staged its 18th annual march through Westminster on Saturday 29th October
The UFFC, a coalition of those affected by deaths in police, prison and psychiatric custody, supports others in similar situations.
Established in 1997 initially as a network of Black families, over recent years the group has expanded and now includes the families and friends of people from varied ethnicities who have also died in custody.
The network includes the families of: Leon Patterson (died in police custody in 1992), Roger Sylvester (died after being restrained by police in 1999), Rocky Bennett (died in psychiatric custody in 1998), Harry Stanley (shot dead by police officers in 1999), Sarah Campbell (died in Styal prison in 2003) and many others.
At a press conference, Arlington Trotman of the Churches Commission for Racial Justice (CCRJ) said: “Deaths in custody and the way they are handled by the state is a tragedy. The [families] not knowing for years and years how their loved ones died and the poor treatment of families during that process.”
He also called for transparency in the criminal justice system and for its workers to stand back and take a look at the suffering of the families, particularly those from Black and Minority Ethnic communities.
The number of such deaths in custody now exceeds a staggering 5,000, yet no police or prison officers have ever been convicted and only a handful have ever been charged.
The UFFC says that a failure to implement change in order to address repeated systemic failures means that the deaths continue. These are grave concerns for both the families involved and the general public.
The highest numbers of deaths occur in prison and mental health settings. There is a disturbing and unacceptable increase in the number of people taking their own lives in prisons. This is at an all-time high despite repeated warnings about the unsafe conditions in prisons.
Levels of staffing in prisons have been cut drastically in the last few years and an increasing number of prisons now are run by private companies such as G4S.
There are also too many people dying in mental health settings, including children, and yet there is no equivalent to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman or the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and at present the NHS Trust or provider investigates itself.
When someone dies in mental health detention there needs to be an independent investigation held into the death.
There is a real problem with families not knowing where to go for help and who are suffering, often in isolation. Families should be entitled to non-means-tested public funding in order to be represented at inquests in the same way as unlimited public funding is used to fund lawyers representing the interests of the state.
In July 2016 the retiring Chief Coroner, Peter Thornton QC, recommended that public funding be made available to bereaved families for inquests into state-related deaths. Families must be informed of any action taken in response to recommendations arising from investigations and inquests.
Saturday’s demonstration marched from Trafalgar Square to Downing Street, where a letter was delivered.
The UFFC has a list of demands:
- · Prison deaths be subject to a system of properly funded investigation that is completely independent of the Prison Service;
- · Officers involved in custody deaths be suspended until investigations are completed;
- · Prosecutions should automatically follow “unlawful killing” verdicts;
· Police forces be made accountable to the communities they serve;
· Legal Aid and full disclosure of information is available to the relatives of victims;
· Officers responsible for deaths should face criminal charges, even if retired.