by Jonathan Lee
Content warning: article contains strong language, ethnic slurs, and graphic descriptions of death, suicide, prison environments and torture.
On April 9th 2018, the day after International Roma Day, a crowd gathered outside the doors of the Murcia Regional Government building in Alicante, Spain. They were not there to celebrate, but to mourn and demonstrate about the unexplained death of twenty-eight-year-old Romani man, Manuel Fernández, on 22nd October 2017. His case is one of many unexplained deaths of Roma in prison.
Manuel was imprisoned in isolation at Albocásser Prison, where his mother reported (CW: graphic imagery) from her last visit in mid-October “he was perfectly healthy, he was a young boy and did not have any [health] problems, he had told us on the phone that he had problems with the guards, that they beat him, but he did not want us to report it because it might make the treatment worse”. Only a few days after the family’s last contact with Manuel, on 23rd October, they received a phone call. Their son had died in prison at 1am on the 22nd.
The injustice this family have endured is not uncommon.
Prison authorities maintain that Manuel was found dead in his cell after his absence was noticed at a roll call. The family insisted on seeing the body after funeral directors arrived with the body, but without a death certificate or autopsy report. They discovered signs of severe violence all over Manuel’s body: rope or belt marks around his wrists and ankles, bite marks on his forehead, marks that could indicate injections in his chest (such as adrenaline), electrical burns on his neck, severe bruising on his torso, broken fingers, and fingernails which had signs of self defence or being dragged along a floor.
The family photographed the evidence of torture and filed a complaint in the court of the guard of Murcia, where they requested a second autopsy be carried out. Their request was denied, pending the results of the first autopsy which the prison had decided to carry out in the meantime. The family are still awaiting the results, and the medical delay has meant that Manuel’s body finally had to be buried, ruling out the possibility of another autopsy.
The injustice this family have endured is not uncommon. It follows a predictable script where a Romani inmate is either neglected by prison authorities and left to die, or mysteriously dies of unknown causes after a history of inhumane and racist treatment by prison guards.
The same thing happened to Andrias Redjepov, a 21-year-old Romani man who died on March 11th 2017 at Idrizovo Prison in Macedonia’s capital city, Skopje. He is reported to have died of a methadone overdose. However, his mother insists that her son died due to injuries caused by extreme violence carried out by prison guards. She said her son had never been a drug or alcohol abuser before and had complained of the abuse he was receiving in the days before his death.
Sources inside the prison say that guards brutally beat Andrias on a staircase in the prison before taking him to a room where they continued to beat and torture him to the point of death. Lifesaving medical attention was not provided in time, and the ambulance was called far too late to save him.
In the same prison, on December 25th 2017, 39-year-old Bekim Demir died of a reported drug overdose just days before he was set to be released. In the weeks before his death, Bekim complained to his family of ill treatment from prison supervisors and doctors. The guards routinely beat him and called him ethnic slurs according to his family who saw the marks left on his back. He also described constant pain in his stomach and legs which the doctors refused to provide treatment for, and even abused him for seeking treatment. On one instance, the doctor apparently told his supervisor “fuck him, get him out, everybody here is sick, I don’t care if he dies”.
Bekim’s family received a phone call from him on the day he died. He told them he was having difficulty breathing after the prison doctor gave him two injections which made him feel paralyzed. He asked his family to come to the prison to save him.
Once again, an apparently healthy twenty-something Romani man died without apparent cause. Once again, there were accusations that he was being mistreated by the prison guards and doctors.
Another Romani man in Macedonia suffered the same fate, after being denied quality medical care. 25-year-old Jusinov Erdal died in Shtip prison on March 22nd 2017 after healthcare was withheld for hours. Once again, an apparently healthy twenty-something Romani man died without apparent cause. Once again, there were accusations that he was being mistreated by the prison guards and doctors. Jusinov was reportedly not getting enough food as the guards were taking it away from him. The day before he died, he allegedly complained to the prison doctor about toothache and pain in his head. The doctor is alleged to have told Jusinov he was faking his condition, called him ‘gypsy bastard’, and refused to treat him. Sources say that on March 17th, the doctor gave him an unknown dosage of unlabeled pills without a prescription, which he took until the day he died. Many eyewitnesses were unable to give testimony for fear of reprisals from individuals within the prison.
Unequal access to quality healthcare between Roma and non-Roma inmates inevitably leads to tragic consequences. The case of 29-year-old Gonzalo Montoya, is a particular indictment of healthcare in the Spanish prison system. Gonzalo was a Spanish Romani inmate who was certified dead from a drug overdose on January 7th 2018 by two prison doctors at Asturias-Villabona Penitentiary Center. But just three hours later, Gonzalo ‘revived’ on the table at the morgue when the physician was about to perform the autopsy.
He had taken three days worth of his prescribed pills for depression and anxiety in one go, in an attempt to commit suicide. Medical staff at the prison had left an inmate with a history of attempting suicide in an isolation cell for three weeks during the Christmas holidays. They also gave him access to a lethal dosage of drugs, told him to self-medicate, and left him over the weekend. Asociación Gitanas Feministas por la Diversidad (AGFD), a Romani Feminist NGO, are pressing for this to be taken as a violation of the Protocol for Suicide Prevention in Prison.
Asociación Gitanas Feministas por la Diversidad (AGFD), a Romani Feminist NGO, are pressing for this to be taken as a violation of the Protocol for Suicide Prevention in Prison.
In Macedonia, the families of four Romani inmates are suing the Prison Authorities and Ministry of Health for discrimination in their access to healthcare and protection, resulting in the deaths of their family members. According to information obtained by the European Roma Rights Centre, Roma represent 16% of the prison population, but accounted for 50% of all prison deaths in the country in 2017. This figure is still an over-representation of Roma in prisons considering only 3% of the population is Romani according to census data. The disproportionate number of Roma in prisons is common to most of Europe. In Romania, where the Roma population accounts for about 9% of the population, they represent 17.2% of the prison population. In the United Kingdom, Romani people and Travellers make up less than 1% of the population, but represent 5% (1 in 20) of the prison population.
Let’s shutdown the racist argument right away. If you are thinking something along the lines of – “yeah and water is wet, of course there are more Gypsies in prison” – then you are arguing that this race of people have an instinctive proclivity to lawlessness as a result of their being. You are attributing criminality as a trait to an entire ethnic group, and concluding they are therefore inferior as a people to others in society. This is the textbook definition of racism. Roma are no more inclined to commit crime than any other ethnic group.
Roma represent 16% of the prison population, but accounted for 50% of all prison deaths in the country in 2017.
Incidentally, there is no evidence from any reports, police statistics, or judicial records anywhere in Europe that point towards a higher rate of criminality amongst Roma than non-Roma. The ERRC carried out an analysis of ethnic profiling in Slovakia, and found no significant correlation between areas where Roma lived in greatest numbers and an increased crime rate. Considering the conditions that some Slovak Roma are forced to live in, this is actually quite remarkable. Like God, there is no evidence to suggest the existence of high Roma criminality, yet millions of people still believe it to be true.
Roma are overrepresented in prison populations because they are policed and incarcerated at a higher rate than other ethnic groups. In prison they often suffer unequal treatment, and in some cases are dying at the hands of racists tasked with their care. The families left behind are faced with the loss of their loved one, as well as having to begin the long fight for some form of justice from those responsible. The double stigma of being a convict and a Gypsy means public opinion is definitely not on their side, so it is up to a small activist minority to hold the guilty accountable.
“Manuel’s death was not a single incident, as racism is systemic.” said a speaker at the Justice for Manuel protest on April 9th. “Manuel dying was a consequence of anti-Roma policies promoted by the Spanish State. A State that dehumanizes the Romani population with racial segregation, with harassment by the State Security forces, with the absence of a reply from the authorities to Romani people’s demands, with covering-up cases of prisoners deaths who have signs of violence on their bodies.The personal is political and thus, the solution to racism must be political too.”
You can follow AGFD to support their campaign for justice in Spain, where 1 in 3 female prisoners is Romani.
Featured image associated with KR vs Miskolc County Hospital case.
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