Deaths in custody

The first annual report of the Forum for Preventing Deaths in Custody was published on 21 September. The report found there were around 600 deaths in custody in England and Wales last year: in prisons, police cells, approved premises and secure hospitals. A third of these deaths were apparently self-inflicted, and the study by the Forum finds that some were preventable.

The report raised concerns about the number of mentally ill people in custody, and suggested they would be better looked after in psychiatric care. The number of self-inflicted deaths in prisons fell from 78 in 2005 to 67 last year, but the figure is on the rise again this year.

Prison overcrowding has been blamed. The current prison population – 81,133 in England and Wales [as at 28.09.07] – is undoubtedly part of the problem. But, shamefully, prisons continue to be used as ‘social dustbins’ for the mentally ill, drug and alcohol dependent, homeless, and so on. This abhorrent practice must stop but, until there is a change in penal policy and practice, deaths in custody will continue, along with the shame on Labour politicians.

My daughter was severely depressed when she died in prison custody in 2003. She had been led to believe that, if convicted at her trial, she would serve her sentence in a secure psychiatric unit. Instead, she was taken to HMP Styal, and collapsed, dying, while on ‘suicide watch’ in the prison’s segregation block on 18 January 2003. She died several hours later in hospital.

There is, as yet, no evidence that ‘lessons are being learned’ – evidenced by the fact that 39 women prisoners have died since my daughter’s death four years ago. Inquests continue to highlight unacceptable practice in custodial institutions, but coroners’ recommendations are not always implemented. The Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Prisons Ombudsman likewise make suggestions and recommendations which, all too often, are ignored. Yet prisons are not above the law: all inmates are owed a legal duty of care, and have a right to life under Article 2. It remains to be seen whether the government will be shamed into taking any action.
Pauline Campbell

On 24 September Pauline was acquitted at North Avon Magistrates’ Court of obstructing the highway outside Eastwood Park prison in protest at the death of remand prisoner Caroline Powell. District Judge David Parsons found that although Pauline was technically obstructing the highway, she had no intention of doing so, particularly given that the prison called the police on the basis she was on their land and was committing aggravated trespass, rather than highway obstruction. The judge accepted that she had gone there to express ‘genuinely held concerns over the deaths of women in custody’ and that she was ‘in the vanguard of public opinion seeking to bring about change’.

FRFI 199 October / November 2007