How Can We Prevent More Young Women from Dying in Prison?

Sarah Reed—a past victim of police brutality—was found dead in a British prison at the age of 32. Campaigners say that her death points to the institutional racism and sexism at the heart of the justice system.

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Feb 19 2016, 2:25pm

Photo by Simone Becchetti via Stocksy

In November 2012, Sarah Reed was dragged by the hair, thrown on to the floor and battered by a police officer, PC James Kiddie, in the back room of a central London clothes shop.

Three years later Reed, who suffered from severe, long-term mental illness, was sent to HMP Holloway, one the UK's most notorious women's jails, to await a trial for an assault which her family claims was in self-defence. She was found dead in her cell on 11 January this year.

"If Sarah wasn't in prison, she wouldn't have died," says activist Patricia Lamour, addressing a basement conference room in east London, where around 50 people gathered on Wednesday to launch a justice campaign for Sarah Reed.

Reed's death at the age of 32, like that of Sandra Bland in the US, has sent shockwaves into a community who condemn her exposure to multiple and overlapping forms of discrimination—including institutional racism, mental health stigma, and the violence she went through at the hands of the authorities.

Women make up just five percent of the UK prison population but account for 26 percent of self-harm cases. One of the many questions Lamour and her campaign group Blak Sox are trying to answer is why the criminal justice system was seen as an appropriate choice for Reed, who had previously spent time in a secure mental health unit.

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An official inquiry is under way, yet campaigners and Reed's family worry this will focus only on specific events which took place in Holloway, instead of holding to account the multiple services that let Reed down throughout her life.

In an interview with the Guardian, her mother Marilyn describes the lack of appropriate care Reed received, after the loss of her child and a brutal assault by a police officer as a "collective failure."

Lee Jasper, who first brought the case to public attention on his blog, tells Broadly that he has spoken with a woman—now freed—who was in prison at the same time as Reed, and who has relayed to him details of how the other prisoners tried to help her.

Sarah Reed. Photo courtesy of the Reed family

"A number of them had been consistently complaining about her treatment," he says. "They were very active in pointing out Sarah's deteriorating distress in the days before [her death]."

"When they were officially informed that she'd passed, there was uproar and some of the women who were very vocal in expressing their anger are facing disciplinary charges as a consequence," says Jasper.

Blak Sox are organizing a demonstration in solidarity with these women outside Holloway next Tuesday.A Prison Service spokesperson denied these claims, telling Broadly: "The allegation that offenders at HMP Holloway have faced disciplinary action following the death of Sarah Reed is completely untrue.

"Our sympathies are with the family and friends of Sarah. We take our duty to keep prisoners safe extremely seriously and on any given day, prison staff provide crucial care to over 2000 prisoners at risk of self-harming."

As a family we are very angry. It's not just because it's my relative; for any women to be let down by society that much is shocking.

Nonetheless, Reed's tragic case has highlighted the injustices of many female prisoners for whom jail is not a suitable option. According to the Prison Reform Trust, while 27 percent of male prisoners have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse, this rises to 53 percent for women.

"A lot of women in prison have suffered trauma, and being in prison often just exacerbates that experience of trauma, whereas diversion into other services enables women to tackle [their] problems," says Kate Paradine, the chief executive of the organization Women in Prison.

Claire Cowper, from the domestic violence charity Nia, works directly with women in Holloway. She says that women often struggle with the punitive nature of the justice system, when what they really need is support.

"We try to move away from how they've been categorized by others, and focus on them being seen for who they are, rather than what they've done," she says. "But the criminal justice system says they're here to concentrate on their offences. There's nothing on, 'What's your history, what have you experienced?'"

Protesters outside HMP Holloway at a vigil for Sarah Reed. Photo by Christopher Bethell

In 2007, after the death of six women in one year at Styal prison near Manchester, the government commissioned the Corston report into vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. This recommended the use of smaller units such as women's centers, and that custody be swapped for community sentences where possible.

Reed's violent assault by PC Kiddie in 2012 left her afraid of "tall, Caucasian men," says Marilyn Reed in the Guardian. Women-only spaces and organisations working at Holloway such as Clean Break, which organizes theatre groups for inmates, and Hibiscus, a charity for foreign-born women, provide a lifeline for women in prison and could also be used to help those outside the system who are at risk.

However, as Jackie Russell from the women's charity organization Women's Breakout points out, while group work and mentoring are helpful, it's a long way from the holistic case-by-case support necessary to prevent further tragedies.

Funding issues facing specialist women's groups are dire, with local budget cuts threatening the future of the services that could provide a lifeline to those in need. Charities working with black, Asian and ethnic minority groups have been disproportionately affected, according to a recent IPPR North report.

Sarah Reed with her baby. Photo courtesy of the Reed family

Lennie Speer is an ex-offender who spent a year and a half in Holloway. On her release in 1981 she set up Cast, the Creative and Support Trust—one of the first organizations of its kind for female offenders, vulnerable women who are at risk of offending, and those with mental health or substance abuse problems.

"I went cap in hand to Cadbury's chocolates, and [chocolate heir] Brandon Cadbury himself came round with a cheque for £7,000," she recalls. "I made him take his shoes off, much to everyone's horror, as we were building our workshops."

Cast was active until 2014, providing support to women at risk, many from minority backgrounds. However, while the website is still live, the telephone numbers are dead lines and a visit to the office in Archway, London finds an empty unit and sympathetic shrugs from the neighbors.

"I am shocked and saddened that Cast seems to be over, after more than 30 years," says Lennie when I tell her the news. "Lessons still haven't been learnt, and the things I was campaigning for still haven't come about."

Read More: When Having a Miscarriage Can Get You Life in Prison

These issues are acknowledged at last night's meeting: "The extent to which [economic] austerity is literally killing people should be included in this narrative," says Jasper. He and Blak Sox are prepared for their inquiry to take years to uncover the truth about what really happened to Sarah Reed.

In the meantime, further scrutiny is needed on a flawed criminal justice system that, if not held to account, may see many other Sarahs. But the campaign group and her family are determined she will not be forgotten.

The Sunday after her funeral, singing and preaching emanate from the south London church where Reed was laid to rest. Roger Briscoe, an usher at the church and a member of her extended family, stops to unfold a print-out of the latest article on the case. He keeps it in his wallet.

"As a family we are very angry," he says. "It's not just because it's my relative; for any women to be let down by society that much is shocking. In prison, Sarah was open to abuse, open to anything in her condition. That should never happen."