Deaths in Custody

An unexplained death in custody represents an important focal point for public scrutiny of the criminal justice system, especially when excess deaths occur in those of Black African or Black African-Caribbean descent. Sickle cell disorder (SCD) is a serious inherited illness that in the UK and USA disproportionately affects racialized minority  groups. Sickle cell trait is the genetic carrier state and not an illness. Nothing can be deduced about possible causes of death from the mere fact that sickled cells are found in an autopsy. The evidence suggests that the treatment of sickle cell in the criminal justice system is twofold. In both the UK and the USA, authorities of the criminal justice system have misused sickle cell trait to explain away sudden deaths, often associated with forced restraint, of black people in custody. Meanwhile, deaths have been attributable to lack of provision of health care for those living with the illness sickle cell disorder who come into contact with officers of the state. Sickle cell has a long and troubled history of being misused to explain sudden deaths in police, prison or army custody, dating back to at least 1974.

Dyson, SM and Boswell, GR (2009) Sickle Cell and Deaths in Custody London: Whiting & Birch

Professor Simon Dyson also contributed his expertise on deaths in custody, to the following article in the New York Times: