09 October 1997

Before HM Coroner Richard Van Oppen

Exeter Council Chambers

Opens 14 October 1997

The inquest opens on 14 October 1997 into the death of Dennis Stevens, a 29 year old black prisoner who was found dead in a special cell in the segregation unit in HMP Dartmoor on October 18 1995. He had been in a body belt for 24 hours. He left a wife and two children aged 10 and 8.

Nearly two years after his death the inquest will be the first opportunity his family will have to discover the truth about his death. It is expected that the inquest will last for 3-4 weeks. Dennis died whilst restrained in a body belt - a thick rigid leather belt fastening around the waist with iron handcuffs attached to a ring on either side - which had been put on him by prison staff 24 hours before his death was discovered. Its use on a man who was in considerable mental distress raises serious concerns about the use of control and restraint techniques and particularly about the body belt - a medieval relic whose use should be outlawed.

The post-mortem results have established that Dennis died of 'acute renal failure and extensive muscle necrosis’. One of the key issues at this inquest will be to establish what part the restraint by officers and the use of the body belt played in his death. In 1991 the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment criticised the use of the body belt: 'the body belt is a potentially dangerous form of restraint: it could often exacerbate rather than improve a prisoner's psychological state and might also entail physical risks for the prisoner. Use of the body belt will rarely - if ever - be justified.'

The conditions in the segregation block at HMP Dartmoor were described by Sir David Ramsbotham, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, as 'totally unacceptable’ in his report of a short unannounced visit in 1996. He recommended that 'if the conditions in the segregation unit can not be improved it should be closed’. After Dennis's death, his family said 'it is extremely disturbing, not just for us as his family but for all relatives and friends of people in our prisons and the public at large, that a man should have been left by the prison authorities in such horrific restraints until after he was dead. Dennis’s death raises very serious questions about the horrific nature of force and restraints that prisoners are subjected to as a matter of routine which demand an independent public inquiry’.

The family call for such an inquiry with a wider remit than the inquest was supported by Britsol Racial Equality Council and INQUEST but has met with no response at all. Despite the fact that unlimited public funds are available for the Prison Service to have a team of lawyers to represent them and union funds enable individual prison officers and the medical officer to be represented, disgracefully there is no legal aid for families.

The family will be represented at the inquest by barrister Phillipa Kaufmann for free.

Dennis Stevens was one of three black men who died in prison custody between October and December 1995 following the use of restraint by prison officers. (Alton Manning in HMP Blakenhurst on 8.12.95) and Kenneth Severin HMP Belmarsh on 18.10.95)