21 August 1997

On Monday 25 August 1997 a Channel 4 programme ‘Citizens Arrest’ will follow the family of Kenneth Severin as they try to find out how he was able to die in Belmarsh prison.

The programme coincides with a campaign launched this week by INQUEST, the family and their MP John Austin to try and get the issues raised by this death properly addressed. During the making of the programme the family requested a meeting with the Governor of Belmarsh prison William Duff to discuss their concerns about their brother’s death. Despite an earlier assurance, he refused to meet with them. Since filming the programme another two prisoners have taken their own lives while in the care of Belmarsh Health Care Centre.

Today it was announced that John Austin MP had made a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman asking them to investigate concerns raised by the death. This action was taken after INQUEST had unsuccessfully referred the case to the Prisons Ombudsman for him to investigate. The Prison Ombudsman stated that while he was sympathetic to the issues, his remit did not allow him to investigate complaints from third parties which effectively rules out the families of people who die in custody.

Deborah Coles Co- director of INQUEST said: “There should be no more serious issue for the Prison Service than the death of a prisoner while in their care, particularly where, as in the case of Kenneth Severin, the person dies in such violent and disturbing circumstances. It is therefore shocking that the Prisons Ombudsman is precluded from looking into complaints made by the families of those who die. This only reinforces INQUEST’s concerns at the failure of the Prison Service to be brought properly to account and only compounds the families belief that these deaths are not taken seriously. In view of the legal restrictions on the scope of the inquest and the lack of an independent body to investigate deaths in prison an extension of the Prison Ombudsman’s remit is urgently required”

“Kenneth Severin died in a brutal and terrifying manner in the custody of prison officers using a form of restraint that has resulted in previous deaths and yet both prison officers and those responsible for their training claimed they were not aware of any potential dangers. Kenneth Severin was one of three black men who died in a three month period after being restrained by prison officers. This death is an indictment both of a criminal justice system that imprisons the mentally ill and of conditions and regimes in Belmarsh prison hospital where Kenneth Severin was subjected to totally inappropriate, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

“INQUEST’s monitoring of deaths in custody highlights the failure of the prison service to learn from and respond to concerns raised by these deaths despite continued loss of life. INQUEST will continue to support the family’s campaign for justice for Kenneth Severin and will raise its concerns with the Government to ensure that lessons are learnt and that other deaths do not happen” 

Note: Kenneth Severin was a schizophrenic who had lived while in the ‘care of the community’ . He was arrested by police in a confused state while trying to break in to a house in which he had once lived. Despite his mental health problems he was remanded to Belmarsh prison where he was received into the Health Care Centre. He had never been in prison before. He died on 25 November 1995 after being restrained by five prison officers.

An inquest held into his death in January 1997 concluded that he had died of positional asphyxia following the use of restraints which was a clear rejection of the version of events espoused by prison staff that the death was an unfortunate accident. The ‘open’ verdict left many unanswered questions. The Coroner made seven strong recommendations and described the ‘appalling state of affairs’ surrounding this case.

‘Citizens Arrest’ Monday 28 August 8.00pm