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Deaths in Custody

In the last ten days two men have died in or following Garda detention. On Saturday Johnny Nevin (39) of Tipperary was detained in Templemore Garda Station, became unwell and was transferred to Nenagh Hospital, where he died. On the 20 April a 39 year-old man was found dead in his cell in Tallaght Garda Station. Both deaths are now being investigated by the Garda Ombudsman Commission under s.102 of the Garda Siochana Act 2005.

The circumstances and causes of these deaths are not known and we should be careful to avoid speculation at this point until the investigations have been completed. There is no suggestion as yet that either man was injured by Gardaí. That said, that two men in their thirties should die in or following Garda custody sould be of grave concern to all. For the time that they were detained they were in the care of the State. As the UK Joint Committee on Human Rights stated in its report on deaths in custody:

When the state takes away a person’s liberty, it assumes full responsibility for protecting their human rights. The most fundamental of these is the right to life.

In addition to the right to life protected under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, there are also protections against torture, ill-treatment, inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to privacy and the freedom from discrimination. The duty under Article 2 entails a positive duty to safeguard life, which requires not only that states take positive steps to protect the lives of individuals whose lives are at risk but also to adequately investigate any instances of deaths in custody. There is ample case law from the European Court on the right to life and it makes clear that, for instance, if a person is at a heightened risk, even where the threat eminates from themselves, the obligation on the State is even higher (see Keenan v. UK).

Little work has been done on deaths in custody in Ireland though names like Terrence Wheelock and Peter Matthews will be familiar to many (we’ve posted about Mr Wheelock’s death here, here and here). That two men should die in/following garda custody demands the most serious of attention, and the most serious of questions to be asked of the system – including why were they in custody? should they have been there? did the gardai assault either individual? were there any medical conditions at the time of the arrest? were the individuals supervised appropriately at the station? what was the response of officers at the station on realisation of the illness/death of the individual?

At the heart of this issue is the harsh reality of the status of people detained, which the Joint Committee on Human Rights expanded on:

…the majority of people entering custody are extremely vulnerable individuals. Many of those who die in custody are young. Most of those who die are vulnerable or sick, with histories of mental illness and drug and alcohol problems. It must be recognised that by taking people into custody the state takes upon itself a particular duty of care, because of their vulnerability, and a special responsibility to ensure their protection and to uphold their human rights… The multiple vulnerabilities of the people detained, the acute need for medical treatment and drug and alcohol detoxification facilities, low educational achievement and poor communication skills, and the high rate of mental illness, are all found to a greater or lesser extent in all forms of state detention.

This unfortunate reality enhances the need for every precaution to be taken when an individual is detained. It is suggested that these two deaths should prompt either GSOC or the Garda Inspectorate to conduct an investigation into this issue as it affects detention in Irish police stations. Two deaths in one week, a week in which the Governor of the Dochas Centre has resigned, due in part to the conditions in the prison, should be ringing the loudest of alarm bells in terms of the treatment of persons in detention centres in Ireland. Of great dissappointment is that, from the media reports, the GRA conference this week (which I will review tomorrow) has failed to address this issue.

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Categories: Criminal Justice, Policing
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