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The death of Annabella Landsberg shows why vulnerable black women should not be sent to prison

25 Mar 2019

Like many domains of life in the UK, black women are disproportionately mistreated within the prison system. Roughly 10% of prisoners are black, and in 2014, for every 100 white women given custodial sentences at crown courts for drug offences, 227 black women instead received prison terms. Within the walls of prisons themselves, these inequalities don’t disappear – they’re replicated and often amplified. State-sanctioned violence can look like lots of different things, and often takes insidious guises.

In September 2017, Annabella Landsberg, a survivor of sexual violence who had physical and mental health problems and had fled persecution in Zimbabwe, died in prison. It was claimed that some staff were unaware of her ill health, and when Landsberg died, she had allegedly wet herself, had water thrown on her by a nurse, been restrained, and been left in pain on the floor, for a total of 21 hours. Last week, an inquest into the circumstances of her death began.  

Extreme as it is, her death fits a trend – black women are routinely treated violently and neglectfully in the prison system. In 2016, Natasha Chin similarly died in prison after her alcohol and drug dependencies were neglected by healthcare staff. There are also multiple parallels to be drawn between Landsberg’s case and the death of Sarah Reed, who had diagnoses that staff seemed largely unaware of. When Reed, who was diagnosed with a number of serious long-standing mental health problems, was visited by her mother Marilyn Reed, a prison guard allegedly asked “Have you got any idea what’s wrong with her?”

This signals towards two clear problems: appropriate healthcare in prison, which prisoners are entitled to, and appropriate sharing of information. If someone so vulnerable is going to be moved into the prison system, communication about prisoners’ health between staff is essential. Why were some healthcare staff in the prison unaware of her condition? And why wasn’t her behaviour contextualised within the fact that she had a serious brain injury?

“The violence of the prison system, particularly as a means of rehabilitating vulnerable people – is not fit for purpose”

We also know that black women’s pain is liable to being taken less seriously – both within the context of healthcare and outside of it. In a study by the University of Virginia, both the general public and medical students in the US were found to estimate that black patients can tolerate higher pain levels than white ones. Whilst attitudes and healthcare can be contextual, these findings have also been supported in research surrounding the UK healthcare system, affecting black people, low-income groups, and women most markedly. The question of why Landsberg was left on the floor for such a long period of time is still unresolved – but we know that she was accused of “attention seeking” and “trying to be difficult” by a nurse – which certainly fits a trend of a lack of practitioner regard for black women’s distress.

Beyond treatment specifically relating to Landsberg’s health, the case also points towards the violence of the prison system, particularly as a means of rehabilitating vulnerable people – it is not fit for purpose. Landsberg was a survivor of a traumatising case of sexual violence, which should have seen her receive close and monitored support when she fled Zimbabwe, perhaps from the NHS or rape crisis support. Five years after arriving in the UK she was diagnosed with HIV, and shortly after, type 2 diabetes. After suffering a brain injury, her behaviour began to become problematic, which is when her family report that her antisocial behaviour started to get her in trouble with the law, and instead of receiving mental health care, she was arrested. Her subsequent death only adds weight to the case for more resources being redirected towards rehabilitation initiatives rather than punitive ones.

If you’re enquiring into the state of the prison system and the treatment of black women within it, the death of Annabella Landsberg tells you everything you need to know. Women like Landsberg should not be incarcerated in the first place. Her specific case demonstrates the prison system’s skewed focus on individual punishment and segregation over rehabilitation and real social change.

“The prison system creates a disconnect between incarcerated women and wider society, but when we hear about what happens in the darkness, we should bring it to light”

Founder of Women in Prison Chris Tchaikovsky put it best: “Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her.” With black people being 53% more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the crown court, cases like this also tragically illustrate how institutionalisation routinely replicates the inequalities we see in wider society.

Each time we hear about a case of black women’s horrific, dehumanising treatment at the hands of the state, we should work to agitate and publicise around it. The prison system creates a disconnect between incarcerated women and wider society, but when we hear about what happens in the darkness, we should work to bring it to light. Attention for Reed and, in the US, Sandra Bland’s cases were widely contextualised within the Black Lives Matter movement, and galvanised by their momentum, but deaths under the same circumstances continue now.

Anabella’s sister Sandra, who calls her Bella, told the inquest last week that “Bella is dearly missed in our community…I meet people in the street who tell me they miss her.

“My sister will not come back but no other family should have to go through this. Prisoners should be properly supported and looked after. I want lessons to be learnt from this.”

We have some power to point out injustice when we see it. Say her name: for Annabella Landsberg, for her family, and for other black women being detained and incarcerated in neglectful conditions. When it comes to vulnerable women, we must not forget. We are part of the same struggle.