Seni Lewis passed away on the August Bank Holiday Weekend of 2010. He was 23.
10 years after his death, we remember Seni Lewis as the adventurous, academic, athletic and caring young man that he was. We celebrate the achievements that have been made under his name thanks to the hard-work of those who loved him.
Seni’s mother, Aji Lewis, describes her son’s love of sport. “He loved basketball, football, boxing; he was quite health conscious. He had lots of friends and was very popular at school. He had a pretty face; the girls liked him.”
Aji recalls a memory of a family holiday in Florida, when Seni was a young boy. On the trip, Seni volunteered to hold a snake and went jet skiing. “Seni was an adventurer.”
“We asked him not to go out too far but he’d gone anyway. We he came back, he had a look that said he knew that he was in trouble. He asked me, ‘Mum, how far is Cuba?’ I said, ‘Cuba?’”
Seni had jet-skied out so far because he had thought that he could get to Cuba. “I suppose on a map Cuba looks near to Florida” Aji laughs as she tells the story now.
Proudly, Aji recounts how Seni always stood up for the marginalised: “he hated bullies.”
There was an occasion when Aji received a phone call from Seni’s school. It transpired that the headmaster was calling Aji to tell her how her son had defended the younger boys from the school bully. The headteacher had said: “I’ll have to have Seni come and work in my office,” and informed Aji that Seni had received handshakes on his way to the headmaster’s office after the incident.
As a young adult, Seni excelled in academia. He had studied IT at Kingston University and by the age of 23, Seni already had a degree and a masters.
Seni was aiming to go to America to study for his PhD.
Under Seni’s name immense achievements continue to be made.
In 2018, Seni’s Law was passed in the UK. Aji describes this as “a miracle.”
Seni’s Law affects mental health units, though Aji hopes that this will go further. The law mandates police officers to wear body cameras should they be called to a mental health ward.
There has to be a trainer in these units, who is responsible for the agency and contracted staff being properly skilled in de-escalation techniques.
“The idea is to get away from restraint as much as possible,” Aji explains. “and to not call the police at the slightest commotion. The police have no right to be in a mental institution.”
Anytime there is a restraint made in a unit, under Seni’s Law, a report now has to be made about the event.
The aim of the law is to make mental health units safer for patients. Aji does not want anybody to go through what she went through in losing Seni.
“Seni died, but I don’t want it to be in vain. He died and other people were saved; that’s what I would like.”
Seni’s Law received cross-party support. It received the Queen’s Assent in a matter of days. It is only the second labour MP private party bill to become law in 22 years.
What an immense achievement.
Aji Lewis now speaks to NHS staff and police officers about Seni’s death and the risks of restraint.
She proclaims: “in order for me and my family to heal, to move forward and to fight for justice, we had to forgive. I will never forget; but it is by God’s grace that I am able to forgive.”
Seni Lewis: an adventurer, an athlete, an academic and an achiever in every sense of the word. We remember him.
The Mental Health Units Use of Force Bill – also known as Seni’s Law – requires mental health inpatient units to comply with requirements around use of force policies, training and data collection. The law came into force after years of campaigning, following the death of Seni Lewis. This week Yvette chats to Seni’s mother, Aji Lewis, about why the law is needed and what it means for the future of policing and mental health inpatient services.
Aji and Conrad Lewis are urging mental health minister to ensure 2018 act takes effect
The parents of a young black man who died after being restrained in a mental health hospital are asking why a law passed in his name almost two years ago has not yet been enacted by the government.
Aji and Conrad Lewis, alongside other campaigners, have signed a letter to the mental health minister, Nadine Dorries, calling for the government to set a commencement date for the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Act 2018.
The act, known as Seni’s law after their son, Olaseni, was introduced as a private member’s bill by the Labour MP Steve Reed. It requires mental healthcare providers to keep records of the use of force, and to train staff in de-escalation techniques to help reduce the use of restraint.
It is also intended to improve transparency and accountability, with every mental health unit having to publish its policy on the use of restraint, keep a record of occasions on which it is used, and designate one person who is responsible for implementing the policy. Police officers who attend mental health settings will have to wear body cameras.Advertisement
His mother said at the time the law was passed: “It took us years of struggle to find out what happened to Seni: the failures at multiple levels amongst the management and staff at Bethlem Royal hospital, where, instead of looking after him, they called the police to deal with him.
“We welcome the law in his memory, in the hope that it proves to be a lasting legacy in his name, so that no other family has to suffer as we have suffered.”
The letter to Dorries, calling on her to enact the legislation urgently, has also been signed by several charity leaders, including Paul Farmer of the mental health charity Mind and Emma Thomas of YoungMinds.
Reed, who was a backbench MP when he brought in the private member’s bill and is now the shadow communities secretary, said: “The legislation I introduced to tackle dangerous restraint used disproportionately against young black men has been in place for 20 months, but it still hasn’t come into force.
“The government simply needs to set a commencement date, something that usually takes just weeks. We can’t wait any longer. Either this legislation matters to the government or it doesn’t. Ministers must bring Seni’s law into force without further delay.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Mental health services will continue to expand further and faster thanks to a minimum £2.3bn of extra investment a year by 2023/24 as part of the NHS long-term [plan].
“The government was fully supportive throughout the passage of the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Act and is committed to publishing statutory guidance on the act for consultation as soon as possible.”
“Police brutality is like a revolting chain that continues to go round and round in circles and there’s no end to it.” – Kedisha Brown-Burrell.
Seni Lewis was left lifeless after being crushed by 11 police officers. For 45 minutes, the recent masters graduate was pushed on to his stomach and restrained with two pairs of handcuffs, one arm held under his chin, the other arm twisted behind his back. His legs shackled by two leg braces. Seni was beaten three times with a baton while his brain was starved of oxygen. He was left “limp” and “braindead”; the police officers thought he was faking it. This was against police practice. The hospital staff had watched on as the life was drained from Seni’s body.
Kingsley Burrell lay braindead on life support. His face had been smothered for two hours by a blanket. His family could see taser marks all over his body as they went to switch off his life support machine. Just hours before, Kingsley had written ‘they’re going to kill me’ in a notepad that his sister, Kedisha, had given him. His forehead was covered in lumps. His lips were bulging, they had burst. The handcuffs he was wearing had been tightened to such an extent that you could see the flesh around his wrists. This was against police practice. The hospital staff had watched on as the life was drained from Kingsley’s body.
In August 2010, Seni Lewis had voluntarily admitted himself to Bethlem Royal Hospital seeking help after feeling restless and agitated. In March 2011, Kingsley Burrell had voluntarily phoned the police in Birmingham for help after he felt that there was a threat to his life whilst he was out with his son. When Seni asked if he could leave Bethlem, 11 policemen were called to restrain him. When Kingsley asked if he could leave police presence, he was detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 for “smelling of weed”.
Two men, both innocent, both full of potential, both voluntarily putting themselves in custodial positions. Both died in police custody. Neither of them had any prior history of mental health issues before these incidents.
‘Excessive, disproportionate and unreasonable restraint and force’ would be deemed the cause of both Seni and Kingsley’s deaths.
It took Kedisha Brown-Burrell, Kingsley’s sister, three years to get an inquest into Kingsley’s death. It took Aji Lewis, Seni’s mother, seven.
In 2019, PC Paul Adey was sacked for dishonesty at a misconduct hearing after it was concluded that he had previously lied about not seeing a blanket smothering Kingsley’s face. In 2017, it was concluded that the force the police used on Seni resulted in his death – however, no police officer has been prosecuted for the murder of Seni or Kingsley. In fact, there has not been a single homocide prosecution of a police officer for over 30 years.
Kedisha said: “The system just never delivers for us. We as a family and as a community don’t have any faith in justice system whatsoever.
“We’ve been traumatised for far too long. We have post-natal depression because of us hearing about what is going on in society on a daily, yearly basis. Even with George Floyd I was like: ‘no, not another fallen solider under the state’.”
The inquests showed that the police abused their power in both cases and the mental health system failed to protect these two men – like it has failed to protect countless others.
Speaking of the way the police officers defended themselves in their respective inquests, both women had this to say:
Aji: “During the inquest, it was obvious that the police were ‘coached’, because they more or less all said similar things using the same words. It was difficult to discern the truth.
“When Seni walked out of Mawdsley Hospital, before going to Bethlem, we experienced some good police practice. They deescalated the situation and Seni was relaxed. This is what police practice should be.”
Kedisha: “There was plain, blank face lying and no remorse whatsoever in the court room. No, no you weren’t doing your job. You abused your powers; that’s exactly what they did.
“We always see a chain of coverups. It was all lies. They lied non-stop. They don’t know how to tell the truth when it comes to deaths in police custody.”
INQUEST casework and monitoring reports that the proportion of BAME deaths in custody where mental-health related issues are a feature is nearly two times greater than it is in other deaths in custody.
There have been 164 deaths in police custody in the last 20 years. 8% of these deaths are black. This is disproportionately high as black people make up just 3% of the UK’s population.
Aji believes the mental health system and the police are institutionally racist. “They think all black men are Superman,” she said, talking of how the 11 police officers piled onto her son. “Incredulous”.
In 2018, Aji Lewis and her local MP Steve Reed passed the Mental Health Units Use of Force Act, widely and eponymously known as ‘Seni’s Law’.
The act increases much needed oversight and management of the use of force in mental health units. There now has to be designated trainers to submit information and statistics about their mental health unit to the Department of Health each year. The legislation also improves regulations to reduce the levels of force used whilst handling patients.
There will also be improved arrangements between the police and mental health units, including the police wearing body cameras when they come into the hospital, as a consequence of Seni’s Law. Seni’s mother says the law is important for preventing anymore grief coming from the mental health system. “We don’t want any other family to lose a loved one like we lost Seni; in appalling, appalling conditions,” she said. “There was a complete lack of accountability.”
Kedisha is working on a private prosecution case for Kingsley. She is also hoping to film a reconstructed documentation of Kingsley’s death to help educate society on police brutality and the failures of our mental health units.
The similarities between the death of Kingsley and the death of Seni are frightening – it implies an institutional problem with the UK’s mental health units, police brutality and race. These are not isolated incidents. These cases consist of the same failures in our mental health system that unjustly sends a family into disrepair.
Reflecting on the campaign for change and the need to reform a system that has failed so many, Aji eloquently quotes Nelson Mandela:
“No single person can liberate a country; you can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.”
Don’t be the spectator; the hospital staff who watched on and did nothing. Don’t shy away and stay silent about a crucial flaw in our society.
Be the collective.
For more information on the topic explore the information on the UFFC and INQUEST websites.