A candlelit vigil is a reminder of the plight faced by thousands inside Britain’s prisons

Tealights being lit with a lighter
Glen Black

A vigil has been held in memory of Stephen O’Donnell, who was killed while serving a sentence at HMP Risley. And those present used it as a chance to highlight problems faced by thousands of prisoners in the UK.

HMP Risley

On 27 January, people lit candles outside of HMP Risley to remember O’Donnell. Fellow inmate Adrisse Gray has been charged with murdering him on 22 January. Friends and family consequently described O’Donnell as a “lovely man” who “didn’t deserve to be taken from us in this way”. His family also said they were heartbroken by his death.

Prison abolition groups Smash IPP, Manchester No Prisons and Pies Not Prisons organised the candlelit vigil. In a press release seen by The Canary, George Grace of Smash IPP said:

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Our hope and intention is to continue shining a light on HMP Risley and the Ministry of Justice, highlighting the failures of this brutal and violent system.

O’Donnell’s death is the latest at the all-male prison. Two prisoners were found dead within two weeks of each other during September and October 2018. Another inmate died in a cell fire in March of the same year. At least two prisoners died at HMP Risley in 2017.

“No more prison deaths”

HMP Risley isn’t unique, though. In its press release, Smash IPP said the vigil held a wider message: “no more prison deaths”. Inquest, which provides expertise on deaths in prison and police custody, recorded at least 4,725 deaths in the prisons of England and Wales between 1990 and the end of 2018.

Grace said that O’Donnell’s case represented the lack of safety faced by prisoners across the country:

Stephen was supposed to be being ‘cared for’ by HMP Risley. Instead, his life was cut short. No mother is supposed to outlive her son, particularly when his death is so violent when he is supposed to be safe.

Danny O’Brien, also a member of Smash IPP, said:

We believe that prison is a form of violence in itself. But as if being locked up for 23 hours a day wasn’t bad enough, prisoners are at real risk of death and serious harm, particularly if they are BAME, LGBTQ or disabled, and most especially if they are black.

Government data for 2012 to 2016 showed violent incidents were more likely to involve people from BAME communities, both as assailant and victim. And Inquest’s data shows BAME inmates consistently represent about 10% of prison deaths. The Prison and Probation Ombudsman has also highlighted transgender prisoners as being at particular risk of violence.

Big issues are profoundly personal

In August 2018, prisons minister Rory Stewart said he would resign if serious problems, including violence, weren’t reduced within a year. It was a promise made to show that he and his government were taking the ‘prison crisis‘ across England and Wales seriously. Stewart’s call for a “new ethos and new direction” for prisons showed an understanding that the biggest problems are systemic.

Meanwhile, O’Donnell’s story shows that these big issues have very profound results at a personal level. Most, if not all, of those nearly 5,000 dead inmates will have friends and family that miss them. Until we can abolish prisons entirely, inmates at least deserve the right to live in safety.

Featured image via Smash IPP

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