International Stance of Deaths in Custody

The recent months of international protests and year-long campaigns have shown the issue of deaths in custody as not limited to Australia and its correctional services. Throughout the world there are endless cases of avoidable deaths in custody that need to be addressed. 

In the United States, many have been demanding answers for arrest-related deaths for many years now. In 2013, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act that requires states to present quarterly reports on deaths in police custody to address the lack of reliable information around deaths in custody. However, Congress has failed to implement it, as states are not reporting, and so data has not been gathered nor been made public since the law was enacted. 

As there is an absence of a government database, other organisations have attempted to create their own including Fatal Encounters, created by the former editor and publisher of Reno News & Review, and the Washington Post national database. It has also raised concern from various members of parliament. 

“The United States continues to face a persistent crisis of deaths in custody, the true scope of which remains unknown” – Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Karen Bass, chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security

A study conducted by academics at the University of Oxford found that both Nordic Countries (excluding Denmark) and Western Europe had the highest prisoner suicide rates of more than 100 suicides per 100,000 prisoners. It conducted as prisoner suicide rates needed clarification and updates, and concluded that “individual-level information about prisoner health [was] required to understand the substantial variations reported and changes over time.”

In addition to this, 2017 reports about England and Wales find that their death rates are considered low when compared to the limited international data. In the last 10 years, 163 people died in or following police custody, according to figures from the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). Suggested reasons for their success are that the following interventions were proposed, though not fully implemented by correctional services:

  1. Alternatives to policy custody for vulnerable individuals who are intoxicated or have mental health needs;
  2. developing better screening and assessment tools to identify risk upon entry to police custody;  
  3. further training for relevant staff and health care professionals;  
  4. using technology to help monitor detainees; and  
  5. designing safer cells

Assessing different countries’ response and actions to deaths in custody can help us understand the problem from a more global perspective. It is particularly useful to look at other countries that have  successfully implemented measures, which have proven to effectively reduce numbers of deaths in custody. These measures can be applied globally to ensure an international reduction of deaths in custody.

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