Next week, a vulnerable person will be taken to a detention centre in preparation for his deportation from the UK. It may well lead to his death. If Home Office plans go ahead, Osime Brown, a 21-year-old black man, will be sent to Jamaica – a country he left aged four – as a result of a crime that he did not personally commit. Because of the UK’s controversial and discriminatory joint enterprise law, Brown was convicted and imprisoned in 2018 after he observed a phone theft in the street, even though other witnesses said he explicitly asked the people who stole the phone to stop. Now, as a second punishment, he is due to be deported on release because he wasn’t born in the UK.
If this goes ahead, it will be yet another instance of a person of colour (often a black person) being deported to a country they barely know, on wholly unfair grounds. This practice is deeply inhumane – we know that at least 11 people have died after unjust deportation in the wake of the Windrush scandal. But what makes Brown’s conviction and deportation particularly concerning, and all the more life-threatening, is the fact that he is autistic, has a learning disability and is said by his family to have very high support needs. He has no family or friends in Jamaica able to care for him. “If he is deported, he will die,” his mother told the Independent. On hearing the news of his deportation, Brown asked his mother what bus he could catch from Jamaica to see her in Dudley.
On hearing of his deportation, Brown asked his mother what bus he could catch from Jamaica to see her in Dudley.
Brown’s story sheds light on the ways that race, disability and criminal punishment intersect. In England and Wales, black people are nine times more likely to be sent to prison than their white counterparts; black people are almost 10 times as likely to be stopped and searched; and black and minority-ethnic people are more likely to lose the chance of a reduced sentence, too. Time and again, news stories have shown that black people face arrest or suspicion for the most mundane activities, from riding a bike, to driving a nice car. Whether by the police, the courts or people in the street, black people are far more likely to be perceived as criminals.
The same bias is present in Brown’s conviction under joint enterprise. This law, which means anyone considered complicit in a crime can be sentenced even if they played no direct part, disproportionately affects young black men. Among those serving time for joint-enterprise offences, black people are represented at 11 times their presence in the population as a whole. This is in large part due to the stereotyping of black male friendship groups as “gangs”.
In 2020, stories of racism in Britain’s criminal justice and immigration systems are worryingly familiar. A less widely understood issue is how disability plays out. Brown is not only black, he’s autistic – a diagnosis that can significantly affect how someone experiences policing. In police interactions and interviews, behavioural traits of autistic people perceived as “unusual” can increase the likelihood they will be arrested, or worse.
In the United States earlier this month, an autistic 13-year-old was shot by police in Utah after his mother phoned for support with his mental health crisis. Other common behaviours associated with autism, such as lack of eye contact, trouble communicating or self-stimulatory movements, can be seen by police and courts as suspicious. Boys who are both black and autistic face a form of double discrimination – like Connor Leibel, who was pinned down after matter-of-factly explaining to police “I’m stimming”. Unsurprisingly, 69% of autistic adults in England and Wales say they are troubled by interactions they have had with the police.
The knock-on effects of this are also evident down the line: autism is more than twice as prevalent in UK forensic settings such as prisons as in the general population – although it’s thought that prisoners are in fact underdiagnosed. Research into this correlation is still scant, but some disability advocates argue that these figures result from a number of factors, including school exclusions due to behavioural differences (Brown was excluded aged 16), and a lack of understanding of autism in forensic contexts.
Brown’s mother said that he didn’t have a mentor or support worker in prison, and was a victim of bullying on the inside, where his health deteriorated.
This disregard for disability is evident in the way Brown has been treated. Despite his support needs, the fact he has shown suicidal behaviour, and does not know anyone in Jamaica to pick him up from the airport, let alone care for him, Osime is set to board a deportation flight next week. His mother’s words feel like a gut-punch: “The trauma is unbearable. I am angry, I am broken, and this has left me with anxiety and depression. It has destroyed my whole family … My baby boy is dying.”
With Osime’s scheduled appeal having been cancelled as a result of coronavirus, his deportation is a damning indictment of the Conservative government’s approach to criminal punishment, to immigration, and to disability – all wrapped up in one case. There are glimmers of hope: a petition to reverse the decision has garnered almost 50,000 signatures, and MPs Nadia Whittome and John McDonnell have both shown their support.
If the Home Office does not take heed, and chooses to send a black, autistic man into a situation that his family claims will lead to his death, it sends a clear message that for this government black and disabled lives do not matter.
Source: The Guardian