Since news of Sarah Reed’s unjust and tragic death emerged earlier this month, many have raised questions and pointed to a series of long-running state failures that plagued her since the age of 19. Yet now those injustices threaten to continue in the treatment of those women who were imprisoned alongside her.
It took three weeks for news of Sarah’s death to reach the public, yet during that time protests had already begun inside the prison itself. The Sarah Reed Campaign for Justice has heard from a number of women who knew Sarah for the brief period that she was in Holloway. Temi Mwale from the campaign group, who are supporting the family, told me “Prisoners in Holloway witnessed the catalogue of abuse that she suffered within the prison. They have said she was targeted. She was being treated as if she was not somebody with mental ill health.”
Prisoners have also said that they questioned guards on why she was not being treated for her psychosis and drew attention to how unwell she was on numerous occasions, but seemingly nothing was ever done. Campaigners have also claimed that those women who did speak out are now themselves being victimised and harassed for having done so. On Tuesday evening a ‘Protect the Prisoners’ protest was held outside Holloway in response to what the Sarah Reed campaign have described as “urgent concerns for the safety of women in Holloway prison”.
That Sarah Reed could die in state custody where there was a duty to care for her is greatly troubling, but that this happened when other women sought to get her the help she needed is damning. Prisoners are portrayed as by nature untrustworthy and most don’t see any need in following what happens inside these institutions. But doing so denies this section of our society a voice, one it is crucial we listen to if justice is to be had for Sarah and her family.
There are questions to be answered about the treatment of Sarah Reed and no doubt these were raised and expressed by the prisoners when they learned the tragic news themselves. Prisoners are afforded no right to protest; even when great injustices take place and their own safety is at stake. Women on the same wing as Sarah would have been left shocked, angry and scared on learning the news, so they must be given the space to grieve and express their anger over the events that led to her death.
If, as has been suggested, prisoners are loosing privileges for having such understandable reactions, their punishment is part of the same culture of state custody that formed the catalogue of failures in Sarah Reed’s case.
The Prison and Probation Ombudsman is now tasked with looking into this death in custody, but given the concerns raised there must be assurances from the prison authorities that the women held with Sarah are being informed of their right to contribute evidence to this investigation. Other than the prison itself they are the only people who can speak about the events that led up to her death.
The case of Sarah Reed has highlighted such a large number instances where she was let down whilst in the care of the state that an entire system has to be indicted. An urgent place to start is with the welfare and testimony of those women still in Holloway prison.