One year ago today (11th of January 2016), Sarah Reed, a vulnerable young black woman struggling with mental health concerns resulting from the death of her infant child and the callous way in which it had been handled, a vicious attack by a police officer while in custody, and a violent sexual assault while in a secure mental health facility, was found dead in her cell in Holloway Prison under suspicious circumstances. She was just 32 years old.
The catalyst for Sarah’s mental ill health was the death of her six-month-old daughter in 2003, her first-born child. Her daughter was suffering from muscular atrophy and had spent most of her short life in hospital. Horrifically, the decision was made to give the baby’s body, wrapped in a sheet, to Sarah and the baby’s father to take to the undertaker, in a taxi. Sarah never recovered.
In 2012, Sarah was falsely arrested for shoplifting and subjected to a ferocious attack by the arresting Metropolitan Police Officer, former Police Constable James Kiddie. The attack was caught on CCTV and can be viewed on the websites of many of the major UK news outlets as well as on YouTube. Astonishingly, even with video evidence and the testimony of a fellow officer who witnessed the assault on Sarah, Kiddie was merely charged with common assault. Though he was convicted of the charge, dismissed from his job and sentenced to a laughable 150 hours of community service, the assault left Sarah terrified of tall, white men and feeling so vulnerable that she would often return to her family home to sleep in her mother’s bed for protection.
In the years between and after these two events, Sarah was sectioned several times as she struggled to rebuild her life and create stability for herself and her younger daughter.
In 2014, while sectioned in Maudsley Hospital, a fellow patient attempted to sexually assault Sarah. She defended herself and the police were called but, instead of her attacker, it was Sarah who was arrested and charged with grievous bodily harm. At a hearing for the case in October 2015, Sarah was remanded into custody and sent to Holloway Prison to await trial. It is still unclear why she was sent to Holloway when psychiatric assessment had been ordered by the court to establish whether or not she was fit to plead. Surely, Sarah and the judicial process would have been better served if she had been sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Three months after being placed on remand, she was found unresponsive in her cell.
Suspicions about Sarah’s death arise from the fact that her family was told she had strangled herself whilst lying in bed, an act that appears to be all but physically impossible. The Reed family is currently seeking clarity about those circumstances. What is not unclear is that Sarah Reed, a young woman with diagnosed mental ill health, should not have been in prison.
At the time of her death, Sarah had been denied her prescribed medication for several weeks despite her mental health diagnosis being on record. It has also been reported that Sarah was being punished by prison staff for behaviour that resulted directly from being denied her medication, rather than being treated for it.
I first learned about what happened to Sarah at a Blaksox meeting in February 2016. For those of you who aren’t already aware of us, Blaksox is a London-based, income generating, social action movement, of which I am a sponsor. With a mandate to “Do For Self”, the movement was born, in October 2015, in response to the violence facing our community and our concern about the lack of effective, credible responses to the socio-economic, cultural and political issues that negatively impact us. Issues evident in every aspect of Sarah Reed’s case.
At that meeting, Lee Jasper, civil rights campaigner, media liaison for the Reed family and the person who first brought her tragic story to public attention on his blog, shared with us the details of what happened to Sarah and we agreed, without hesitation, to extend our support to the family as they strive to determine exactly how Sarah died, and why she was remanded to Holloway Prison rather than kept in a medical facility where she could have received appropriate care.
With her family’s consent, Blaksox established the Sarah Reed Campaign for Justice and have begun the fight for the amendment of the Mental Health Act, 1983 which provides for the statutory detention of people suffering from mental ill health, without their consent for the stated purpose of public safety health assessment, care and treatment.
Deborah Coles, Director of Inquest, who advised on the 2007 Corston Report, has said:
“The courts, police and mental health services must be held to account for why Sarah as a victim of abuse, bereavement and police brutality ever ended up in prison in the first place.”
We agree. No mentally ill person should be kept in a police station or prison cell. And we are calling for Sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act to be reformed to ensure police stations and prison cells are no longer deemed “places of safety” for those suffering, like Sarah, with mental ill health.
Sarah’s life was brief and marred by more tragedy than many of us will ever experience, but she was loved. Described by her brother as “beautiful on the inside and beautiful on the outside,” Sarah had a life that mattered. Her family, including her young daughter, has been left devastated by her loss and tormented by the lack of credible information about how she died and why she was in prison when she should have been in hospital.
Please support the Sarah Reed Campaign for Justice and, more importantly, Sarah’s family in our efforts to ensure there are no more stories like Sarah’s. Join us as we call for a reform of the Mental Health Act.
No one suffering mental ill health should be held in a police station or prison cell. Ever.
#SarahRead #SayHerName #BlackLivesMatter
For more information regarding the Sarah Reed Campaign for Justice, follow @Justice4SLReed on Twitter
Read the original story that brought Sarah Reed’s case to public attention on Lee Jasper’s Blog
For more information about Blaksox activities and events, follow @BlaksoxSox on Twitter