Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

This ‘guest’ blog, originally published on ‘The Conversation’, is written by Jake Phillips, Sheffield Hallam University; Loraine Gelsthorpe, University of Cambridge, and Nicola Padfield, University of Cambridge.

Getting released from prison or police custody can be a huge shock to those who have been incarcerated. Our new research gives an indication of just how vulnerable these people can be. We found that over a seven-year period, 400 people died of a suspected suicide within 48 hours of leaving police detention.

The number of people dying in prisons and in police custody has been increasing for several years. There is, rightly, a statutory obligation for every death that occurs within a state institution to be investigated by an independent body. So each death in a prison is investigated by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), while the equivalent in police stations are investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

But for people who die shortly after release from police or prison custody, their deaths are not subject to statutory investigation and are too often invisible.

A dangerous transition

Our research, published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, looked into non-natural deaths of people who have been released from police detention or prison custody. We found that the data on these deaths is contingent upon the relevant institutions (prisons, police or probation) finding out about the death in the first place – and this can be difficult.

We examined two sets of data: IPCC data on suspected suicides that occurred within 48 hours of release from police detention and data from the National Offender Management Service on deaths of people under probation supervision, which includes those released from prison. We also conducted interviews with 15 custody sergeants – police officers who are responsible for the welfare of a detainee while in a police station – prison officers and others such as representatives of police and crime commissioners (PCCs) and Public Health England.

The IPCC data suggest that 400 people died between 2009 and 2016 of a suspected suicide within 48 hours of release, although this number declined between the years 2014-15 and 2015-16, as the graph below shows. People who had been detained on suspicion of sex offences accounted for 32% of the 400 total suspected suicides.

We also examined a selection of 41 investigations and summaries of investigations into apparent post-release suicides that were provided to us by the IPCC. Half of these people had pre-existing mental health conditions. These referrals also pointed to inadequate risk assessment, record keeping and onward referral to relevant community-based care providers such as mental health or drug treatment providers.

We then looked at deaths that had occurred within 28 days of release from prison. Despite some issues with the accuracy and completeness of the data, we identified 66 people between 2010 and 2015 who had died from non-natural causes within 28 days of leaving prison. The numbers are small and so it is difficult to draw wider conclusions, but we found that 44 of those 66 died from a drug-related death. Of the 66, 35 had served a sentence for an acquisitive offence such as theft, shoplifting or robbery, offences which are commonly associated with drug use.

We also analysed investigations conducted between 2010 and 2015 by the PPO into deaths that occurred in approved premises, also known as bail hostels, within 28 days of release from custody. These investigations seek to understand what, if anything, could have been done to prevent the death. This highlighted problems with supporting drug-using offenders, a lack of confidence among staff and a failure to create a smooth transition from prison into the community.

Staff under strain

These analyses only tell part of the story. Our discussions with custody officers painted a complex picture. They argued that they were getting better at identifying people in custody with mental health conditions but that their ability to deal with them effectively was restricted by factors beyond their control such as a lack of appropriate treatment for people after leaving their care and an inadequate number of beds in mental health hospitals. They told us that the risk assessment tool they use for identifying such people was not fit for purpose because it did not go into enough detail and that they would benefit from additional mental health training. They were also strongly in favour of the responsibility for healthcare commissioning in police stations being handed to the NHS, rather than PCCs, a proposal which was dropped in December 2015.

The story from prison staff was similar, but they also talked about the use of new psychoactive substances and the negative effects these substances are having on mental health and safety in the prison.

Problems also exist when it comes to the provision of community-based care after people are released. These include cuts to community mental health services and drug services, as well as recent changes to the probation service, which have seen 70% of the service outsourced to the private sector. Such reforms have made communication between prisons and probation providers more difficult. These budget cuts and public sector reforms are having a serious impact on the ability of criminal justice agencies to deal with these issues and prevent any future deaths.

There needs to be an improvement in the way in which data on non-natural deaths is collected. Deaths post-detention should also be subject to similar levels of investigation as those that occur in police custody and prison. It would be naive to suggest that all deaths of people leaving state detention can be investigated, but there is scope for more oversight from both the IPCC and PPO, at least while they are adjusting to life back in the community. At the same time, the government must maintain investment in mental health and drug services to help prevent those most vulnerable when they are released from detention from taking their own life.

The Conversation

Jake Phillips, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Sheffield Hallam University; Loraine Gelsthorpe, Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Deputy Director, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, and Nicola Padfield, Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice; Master, Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

On 8 November, the night of the American election, and just a few months after the UK voted to leave the EU, Fitzwilliam held an ‘In Conversation with the Master’ event entitled ‘The challenges of immigration’. On the panel were Liz Barratt (History 1984), partner at the law firm Bindmans, and David Chirico (Trinity College, MML 1990), Barrister at 1 Pump Court Chambers.

This guest blog is by Conor Monighan (English 2014)

In both the American election and the EU referendum, immigration has been a key issue. Yet despite this focus, both democratic exercises have paradoxically lacked a proper debate about immigration.

Liz Barratt suggested this was because the practical realities have been lost under the emotion of the political campaigns. As she pointed out, the UK already has a points based system for non-EEA (European Economic Area) migrants. For both panellists, there was a contradictory attitude towards immigration within the UK. Whilst we expect the world to accept our teenagers embarking on their Gap Years, and give free healthcare for our ‘expats’ in Spain (a term which simply means immigrants for Liz), the UK is unhappy to reciprocate with other nations.

We are content for capital to come in freely via foreign direct investment (FDI), but not for people to enter as they wish. Both panellists would support the latter, advocating an abolition to border controls. This was reflected in David Chirico’s comment that “the ultimate aim must be to enable people to exercise their right to stand where they want to on the planet”.

David and Liz view their work as representing people who have fallen out of the system or who are victimised by it. For example, if the rules change so that an individual can’t stay as long as they had planned, David and Liz might be able to help. But new legislation is tightening up immigration rules every year, with an increasing responsibility on institutions like universities, banks and landlords to check the immigration status of those they employ or rent to. The automatic right of appeal has been removed, and it has been made deliberately difficult to comply with our immigration rules.

Political cunning has been deftly employed in order to harden public attitude towards immigration, according to the panellists. Famously the Human Rights Act was ridiculed by Theresa May at the 2011 Conservative Party Conference, when she claimed that one illegal immigrant was allowed to stay because of his cat. Similar tactics are being used within the court room as well. At first, only individuals who had committed an offence were removed from the UK and could appeal via video link. But now that courts have become used to the idea, even those who haven’t committed a crime are automatically deported before being allowed to appeal.

Wider changes to the legal system have left individuals open to abuse, because cuts to legal aid mean those who are struggling to be represented become targets for charlatan ‘lawyers’ who offer inadequate legal advice. This is not just a problem for people seeking to come into the UK, but also for British people. For those who form relationships with people who aren’t from the UK, only to have their loved ones removed by the authorities, the increasingly stringent rules become brutally clear. In Liz Barratt’s words, the authorities “have nebulous powers that people aren’t aware of”.

David Chirico

David Chirico

Liz Barratt

Liz Barratt

Nicky Padfield

Nicky Padfield, Master

Both panellists stressed the limits of what they can achieve as lawyers. Whilst they cannot significantly change lives ruined by war, they can help make those lives a little better. As David Chirico said, “you can’t require gratitude”.  He also pointed out that it’s also not usually appropriate to use individual cases to campaign against the injustices of the system, because to do so puts unfair pressure on clients. Working within the immigration rules can therefore be immensely frustrating, and attempting to change it from within is near impossible.

Perhaps most disturbing is that the political attitude towards immigration has been hardening across all political parties for quite some time. The dismissal of Charles Clarke by Tony Blair marked a watershed moment in British politics, at which expressing a desire to increase immigration was made impossible. In the EU referendum, this was demonstrated by the Remain campaign’s inability to find a position to combat the anti-immigration movement.

The event showed me that a discussion about immigration has yet to be properly begun.



About Conor Monighan

Conor Monighan is a final year student at Fitzwilliam College, reading English.