Sickle cell and deaths in custody

We know that sickle cell disease is a vital part of the science curriculum in universities. But how can it inform the social science and humanities sections of the academy? One example is through my work on the relationship between sickle cell and sudden unexpected deaths of Black men in police or prison custody.

At De Montfort University, the work on sickle cell and deaths in custody (Dyson and Boswell, 2009) informs the youth and community development curriculum. One element of this is to encourage students who will work with young people in a multi-ethnic society to understand the ways in which White people enjoy cultural, material and symbolic resources, that, usually without any critical reflection on their part, they then regard as the natural order of things. The research work drawn upon illustrates this general principle in the case of sudden death of Black people in custody. The research shows how official accounts of sudden deaths of Black people in state custody draw upon two contradictory discourses. When a Black man dies in police or prison custody and is found to have sickle cell trait at autopsy (all people with sickle cell trait would show sickled cells at autopsy) the death is attributed not to violence, restraint, positional asphyxia, use of conductive electrical devices or pepper spray, but to “unexpected”, “rare”, “natural causes” that officers “could not be expected to know about”. Conversely, there are documented deaths in police and prison custody of people whom it is known have the full medical condition sickle cell anaemia, but whose requests for preventive or emergency treatment are systematically denied, leading to their deaths under police or prison jurisdiction.

Deaths in Custody Book Jacket

The lecture and discussion based on this research contributes to several of the learning outcomes for a module entitled “Black Perspectives”, which aims to: (1) Present a critical appreciation of the relationship between Black people and non-Black people; (2) Analyse a contemporary issue of significance to the Black Community, and (3) Reflect on individual learning during the module and explore how the module content and the group  work undertaken contributed to them working toward enhanced practice based on knowledge, experience, and skills.

This session contributes to the wider BA (Hons) Youth and Community Development programme aim of challenging taken-for-granted assumptions of students, in this case by exploring the complex ways that, even in death, the social experience of Black and White people is not the same.

Research References

Dyson, SM and Boswell, GR (2009) Sickle Cell and Deaths in Custody London: Whiting & Birch 

Blog Post by Professor Simon M Dyson

Unit for the Social Study of Thalassaemia and Sickle Cell,
De Montfort University

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