James Best: Jailed in the riots for stealing a gingerbread man... dead in the prison that should have protected him

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

James Best had a history of mental health problems before being jailed after the riots of 2011. Now his brother has warned that the systemic failures which led to his death could happen again

James Best’s death in prison, where he was being held for stealing a gingerbread man during the August 2011 riots, was one of the most tragic episodes of the disturbances which shook England that summer.

Mr Best, who took the gingerbread man from a looted bakery in Croydon, had at that time only come back to the UK after a period spent living and working in Portugal, and a month before the riots he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act after self-harming in public.

But what makes his death and the events surrounding it worse is that he should never have even been imprisoned in the first place, Mr Best’s brother has said.

Owen Daniel told The Independent that his 37-year-old brother, whose death from a heart attack a jury found to have been preventable, should have been placed in care due to his mental health issues, rather than in a cell in one of Britain’s most dangerous prisons. And Mr Daniel warned that – without real change – his brother’s death will not be the last preventable tragedy at HMP Wandsworth.

At his inquest, Westminster Coroner’s Court heard from prison staff that Mr Best was “failed by the system”. Although the court found that he died of natural causes, the assessment of the performance of the prison staff and ambulance service was scathing.

“Without a doubt there is a risk that this could happen again. Everyone in court said they are making the changes. They are saying that the system that should have been in place then is in place now. But that doesn’t give us much confidence,” said Mr Daniel, from Hastings.

James Best was on remand awaiting sentencing when he died; his case was one of the many processed speedily by the courts in the immediate aftermath of the riots. And his brother said he believed that the pressure placed on the prison system by the influx of prisoners immediately after the riots, coupled with institutional failings, were behind his Mr Best’s death.

In their verdict, the inquest jury stated: “The initial prison officer response did not recognise the urgency of James Best’s needs and the appropriate level of medical support required.” And the jury heard that there were delays in getting the paramedics to Mr Best’s side.

Mr Daniel said that his brother complained of not getting the care he needed in a letter sent shortly before his death. He said: “James wrote to me before he passed away and he described not being able to get hold of medicines he thought he should have been able to get hold of and called the medical system a disgrace. He had not seen anyone from the mental health team, despite asking to. He mentioned to me in the same letter that he was considering self-harming, which would not have been him saying ‘I need attention’. For him, that would be serious; he had a history of it.

“I can’t imagine he would only have said it to me in the letter, he would have said it to someone in the mental health team if he had been given an appointment. We heard in the inquest that they didn’t believe he was a suicide or self-harm risk. I beg to differ; those were things that would have been picked up, had they looked for them.”

Mr Best went to live with a foster family as a teenager and had shown promise as a cricketer. By the time he went to prison, he was overweight and had health problems which should have excluded him from using the prison’s gym. But, after a heavy training session, he suffered a heart attack.

HMP Wandsworth has been at the centre of controversy due to the number of deaths that have occurred there. Inspectors called it “unsafe” in 2011 after they found 11 deaths between January 2010 and March 2011. And the campaign group Inquest said that Mr Best’s inquest was the third this year into a death in custody there.

“They just don’t care because they are just managing numbers, like you would with sheep on a farm,” said Mr Daniel. “They are not particularly concerned about individuals with those complacent attitudes, it is difficult to see how things will change, unless they legislate.

“We need to see quicker, more accurate assessment of mental health issues and to get people the attention they need. James should never have been in a prison, he should have been in a hospital. Maybe the mental health team could have seen that.”

A Prison Service spokesman said: “We will consider the inquest findings to see what lessons can be learned in addition to those already learned as a result of the investigation conducted by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.”

The verdict on Wandsworth: 'Unsafe, demeaning and abusive'

Inspectors visiting Wandsworth prison in 2011 were scathing about its safety record. There were 11 deaths in custody between January 2010 and March 2011 and “typically, there were about 32 incidents of self-harm each month”.

They also saw “frequently indifferent and sometimes abusive staff interactions with prisoners”. They admonished management at Wandsworth and Pentonville for colluding during inspections to  move difficult prisoners, hiding them in the system.

The inspectors wrote: “The treatment and conditions of too many prisoners at Wandsworth was demeaning, unsafe and fell below what could be classed as decent.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor