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Thursday 21 November 2019
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Editorial

Death in custody

FOR THE great French theorist Michel Foucault, the prison represents a preeminent expression of state power on the individual. The death of a man serving a three-month sentence for marijuana possession last week is a matter of grave concern that calls for a thorough investigation and a review of prison procedure.

We cannot jump to conclusions in the case of Darryl Baptiste, also known as Michael Phillip, who was found unresponsive in a cell at the Maximum Security Prison, Arouca, last Friday. Which is precisely why the matter must be properly probed: authorities should dispel all rumours and resolve the uncertainties surrounding the case. The only way to achieve that is through a proper inquest, a Prison Service review and/or a police investigation.

It matters not why Baptiste was at Arouca. It has been reported he was due to be assessed by a board before onward placement. Yet, such an assessment should have taken place at court or any other facility – not Maximum Security which is supposed to be reserved for the most hardened of criminals, not people holding a few grams of weed. If the purpose of the assessment was to determine where a prisoner should go, it stands to reason the assessment should take place in a neutral zone.

We call, therefore, for clarification of the procedures in place to assess prisoners, especially ones that are remanded on less serious charges.

The job of the State is to protect citizens and to rehabilitate those who fall afoul of the law. When an individual, subject to police and judicial power, ends up dead in custody, that represents a flagrant breach of the social contract. A person, no matter the charge, is placed in an extremely vulnerable situation when their liberty is taken from them.

It could well be that the death was a result of hidden medical issues. But even so, several questions still need to be asked. How are prisoners screened for medical issues? Are medical procedures for people behind bars working? Is there enough public health surveillance? How can a repeat of this incident be avoided? These are matters that only a full investigation will resolve.

The office of the Inspector of Prisons needs to be fully engaged with this case.

An investigation can also rule out whether foul play occurred and remove any cloud of suspicion lingering over the prison officers who had oversight at Maximum Security. That is key if the public is to have confidence in the system. Too often there are reports of people dying in cells, whether due to suicide or foul play. A culture of cynicism has developed which pits turnkeys against ordinary citizenry – all of which is to the detriment of the criminal justice system as a whole.

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