Denying Prisoners Mental Health Care Is Cruel and Immoral

U.K. prisoner Sarah Reed was found dead in her prison cell in January. What has emerged since that time, is the story of a woman with severe mental health problems who had previously been victim of police brutality, and who may have been denied the vital mental health care she needed while in prison.

The BBC reports that Reed, 32, was found deadáin her cell at Holloway Prison, London, on January 11. Attempts to revive her were made, but she was pronounced dead a short time later.

Reed was in prisonáafter beingáremanded for woundingásomeone at a secure mental health unit where she was receiving treatment for what are described in reports as serious mental health issues.

The independent Prisons and Probation Ombudsmanáis conducting an investigation into her death but, as other commentators have written, what will not be officially investigated is how Reed ended up at the prison–yetáthis is where her family and supporters believe the focus should also be.

Victim of Police Brutality

To say that life was unkind to Reed would be an understatement. Reed reportedly suffered the devastatingáloss of her newborn baby in 2003. This traumatic event led to herámental health deteriorating and her suffering from drug addiction. In November of 2012 she was then arrested for shoplifting in London. Shortly after it became apparent that the arresting officer, then PC James Kiddie, 46, had assaulted her. CCTV footage showed that she was kicked, punched in the head three times, and then pinned to the ground. There isáno evidence that Reed had been physically uncooperative or threatening.

Kiddie was ultimately found guilty of common assault and was dismissed from the police force, in addition toáhaving to serve 150 hours of community service.áStill, questions remained as to why Kiddie had been allowed to keep his job despite several previous incidents and complaints, and why initial investigationsádidn’t lead to more swift action against Kiddie.

For Reed however, this violent arrest put her on a trajectory to being placed in a secure mental health unit in Maudsley Hospital, South London, where she was held under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act. It is alleged that in October 2014 an incident occurred that caused Reedáto lash out at another patient, at which point the police were called and Reedáwas remanded in custody. However, this version of events is now disputed.

It has since emerged that Reed reportedly told her family that the incident that landed her in prison was not an unmotivated physical assault but was in fact her acting to defend herself from allegedásexual abuse.áThe Guardian reportsáthat Reed’s family maintains that, while they were denied accessáto Reed while she was in prison, sheáhad written to them and consistently maintained that she had only acted in self-defense. Details on this remain sketchy, but the family seems to believe that Reed’s history meant that a thorough investigation may not have been conducted.

At the very least, campaigners say that this case carries a disquieting similarity–if not in the details then the wider themes–to the case of Sandra Blandáand other arrests this time in the United States where women and men of color have ultimately been killed or have taken their own lives while in police custody. For that reason, many social media posts about Sarah Reed have been accompanied with the “BlackLivesMatter” hashtag.á

A Prisoner Left Without Mental Health Treatment

That speculation to one side, Lee Jasper, a former director of policing and equalities for London who is acting as liaisonáto the media for Reed’s family,áhas drawn attention to anotheráfact, namely that Reedádidn’t have access toámental health care, and specifically her medication, while she was in prison. The Guardian quotes Jasperáas saying:

ôThe obvious fact that Sarah was ill meant that placing her in the criminal justice system without recourse to the medical help she clearly needed was an unforgivable act of brutality and cruelty. I am told that throughout her time on remand Sarah never received any medication. This would have constituted a living hell for someone whose life had been marred with personal tragedy, mental ill health and police brutality.ö

Campaigners are also keen to highlight how putting mentally ill people in prisons is a dramatic failing of corrective justice.

Prisons acting as proxy mental health detention units isánot aánew concern, and nor are the subsequent higher rates of fatalitiesáthat come with it. An inquiry made by the Equality and Human Rights Commission looking atá2010-13 figures, found that non-natural deathsáin custody was a significant problem: “367 adults with mental health conditions died of non-natural causes while detained in psychiatric wards and police cells and another 295 adults died in prison, many of whom had mental health conditions,” says the Commission on its website. The report points to basic failures, like failing to monitor and assess people with suicidal ideation and, also, not involving families in supporting detainees.á

Not much about this story is clear yet, but one thing seems certain: Sarah Reed’s death needs a full investigation, not just surrounding the circumstances of how she died, but also into the chain of failures that led to her being incarcerated in the first place. At the very least, we owe that much toáReedáand other vulnerable people like her.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Ellen M.
Ellen M.2 years ago

Anything change in the system yet?

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Amanda Wildman
Amanda Wildman3 years ago

I'm sure a high percentage of them have mental illness. This is a cruel recipe for disaster.

Iskrica Kne┬×zevic

Thank you.

Veronica Danie
.3 years ago

Thank you.

Margie FOURIE3 years ago

I this not what got them imprisioned in the first place.

Debbi -.
Debbi -3 years ago

Ronald Reagan, the GOP'S golden-boy/puppet. He certainly left his mark, starting in California. Look at all the money they saved by releasing and ignoring the mentally ill. Don't expect the GOP to do anything about it now.

Pat P.
Pat P3 years ago

Our mental health system is a disgrace! It is commonly known that our prisons are filled with people who have mental health issues who do not belong there, with the lack of treatment or even worse subjected to abuse or killed.

Thanks to Ronald Reagan closing hospitals (putting people on the street), there is insufficient care for the increasing number of people who need help and won't get it.

Barbara S.
Barbara S.3 years ago

Even after someone is convicted of a crime and ordered to serve time, he/she still has a right to appropriate healthcare, education, therapy, etc. Most people will one day be out amongst us again; the better they are treated and educated to become a contributing member of our society, the less likely they are to commit more crimes.

Dominic C.
Dominic C3 years ago

Sadly, death-in-custody is a concern all over the world. The UK has come out with so many reports either from commissioning studies or studies done by the Lords and yet you have these issues. The thing here is simple, there needs to be legal redress meaning advocacy groups should drag the issue to court and sue the respected Gov bodies then with suits and media reports would only nudge Gov to bear the responsibilities. Just look at the Flint, MI lead-tainted water issue...It took Michiganders 2 whole years to finally get their voices heard.