Prison

Prison

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold

In this blog post I am going to discuss the issue of deaths in custody, especially cases where prisoners have taken their own lives and I apologise in advance if some readers find these subjects distressing. I know that I do. In the specific case that I deal with towards the end of this post I have been careful to withhold details that might lead to the identification of one particular young man – someone I knew personally – in order to protect his family. Details of this case are particularly graphic and involve a violent sexual assault, so please be warned before reading further.


Amid the escalating crisis in our dangerous, dysfunctional prisons the death toll continues to climb. Recent figures issued by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) indicate that by August 2016 a total of 321 people had died in our prisons in England and Wales – up 30 percent over a 12-month period.

MOJ: damning indictments
Of course, not all those deaths are self-inflicted. As our prison population ages due to a combination of longer sentences, more lifers and a rising number of very elderly men in custody (often imprisoned for historical sex offences), we will inevitably see more deaths from natural causes such as old age or as a result of deteriorating health due to advancing years. In some cases, as inquest juries have ruled, inadequate healthcare in prisons may have played a contributory role in hastening death.

Then there are deaths in custody in which the use of illicit drugs – particularly so-called new psychoactive substances (NPS) such as Spice and Black Mamba – may also have been a factor. Possession of NPS in prisons and the trafficking of these drugs into prisons have only been criminal offences (rather than disciplinary issues) since May of this year.

NPS: Spice is one brand
Recently, there has been a much-needed focus on deaths in custody. At the end of last week the Prisons and Probations Ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, announced during a speech he delivered that such drugs had played a role in at least 58 deaths in prisons in England and Wales over a three-year period between June 2013 and June 2016. In some cases inmates have taken their own lives due to enormous debts run up to other prisoners for the supply of NPS and other drugs, in other incidents fatalities had been caused by violence linked to the drug trade.

However, in this particular post I want to focus particularly on the issue of suicide in custody. Self-inflicted deaths in our prisons are now at their highest level for eight years. In the 12-month period between June 2015 and June 2016, a total of 105 prisoners had taken their own lives in jails in England and Wales.

Some establishments have much worse records than others. For example, at HMP Woodhill near Milton Keynes, there have been eight deaths in nine months, the most recent a death by hanging at the end of August. Not every case at this prison was self-inflicted.

Not enough staff to prevent suicide
Some prison staff and reform campaigners blame the marked fall in the number of frontline officers for the rising death toll. For example, earlier this month the governor of Glen Parva Young Offenders Institute in Leicester, Alison Clarke, told a coroner’s inquest into the death of a 19-year old that she simply did not have enough staff to keep prisoners in her custody safe. She told the jury that a “lack of resources from the Ministry of Justice” prevented her from keeping inmates safe from self-harm and suicide - a particularly shocking admission.

However, there are also serious questions about whether proper measures are taken when inmates are believed to be at risk of self-harm or suicide. At a separate inquest earlier this week, a jury hearing evidence about the death by hanging of New Fathers 4 Justice activist Haydn Burton at HMP Winchester in July 2015 concluded that prison staff “more likely than not” had known that Mr Burton had made a noose in his cell before he took his own life, yet appropriate action in line with national procedures was not taken. The jury verdict was particularly damning of failures at the prison. As the coroner noted, this was just one of the four deaths at HMP Winchester during 2015.

HMP: unable to cope with the crisis
It has been clear for years that the Prison Service is in deep crisis. Too few frontline staff to run prisons safely, ill-advised MOJ policies that have seen experienced prison officers pensioned off, poor recruitment and worse retention levels of new staff, some of whom simply don’t last long in post because they can’t cope with the lousy conditions or the stress of the job. When you add serious overcrowding at many prisons into the toxic mix, the results can be explosive and tragic.

Yet, these are not the only contributory factors behind the rising death toll in our prisons. How many grieving families are going to be told that their loved one will only be coming home in a coffin? How many kids left without a parent or grandparent, or an older brother or sister? How many parents will have to bury their own child?

That question is really for you, Liz Truss. You have previously said publicly that you believe that prison should be - and I quote - “tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable.” Should that also include an unspoken death sentence due to negligence or staff shortages?


Please only read the following paragraphs if you are prepared to be made very angry as a result of institutional callousness, negligence and failure to provide appropriate care to the most vulnerable in our prisons. All names have been changed, but the facts are exactly as I witnessed them.

Tom was barely out of his late teens. He was on recall at a Cat-B local as a result of getting into a fight with a family member while he was on licence after an earlier stint in a YOI. When he appeared on a wing of about 180 adult men, he looked about 15. He was very quiet and slight of stature. He knew no-one at the prison and spent much of his free time leaning on the handrail looking up and down the landings of the vast Victorian pile.

Victorian Cat-B local prison
Within a few days, Tom had run out of money. He was a heavy smoker, one of the ways he tried to control his anxiety and stress. He ran out of rolling tobacco and was reduced to begging pinches of ‘burn’ or dog-ends around the wing with the promise that he would return the favour on the next canteen day. It’s the oldest story in the book and the prison equivalent of “the cheque is in the post”. There are generally few takers for these hard luck stories.

Such vulnerability does not go unnoticed in our prisons. These situations provide valuable business opportunities for the unscrupulous and predatory low lifes that can be found on almost every wing.

A ‘friendly’ fellow inmate in his 30s, a married man with his own kids and serving a long sentence for drug offences and violence, ‘befriended’ Tom and offered him small amounts of tobacco and other luxuries such as instant coffee. Needless to note, these were not gifts. Despite warnings from his older cell-mate who tried to offer him advice and support, Tom continued to associate with the man who was supplying him with goods on tick.

Burn: one cause of debt in prison
Predictably, Tom missed his first repayment deadline on canteen day. No problem, he was assured, although of course the interest due would have to increase to take account of the delay and the risk he might be transferred to another jail. Tom agreed readily and left his creditor’s cell with a small bag of coffee – added to the rising debt, naturally. This is a scenario that plays out in every prison in the land, whether it involves tobacco, coffee or drugs.

Eventually – and inevitably – Tom couldn’t make repayments. He had a prison job that paid around £8 a week and his family wasn’t in a position to send him much money. The debt quickly spiralled out of control. Then things started to turn nasty.

Tom started to hide from his creditor in other cells during association periods. He tried to avoid the man during ‘free-flow’ – the times when prisoners are out of their cells and are being escorted to and from work or education.

Of course, wing tobacco and drugs barons rarely get their own hands dirty. They employ thuggish minions who enforce collection of debts and hunt down deadbeat debtors. Two were duly dispatched to find Tom and bring him up to the fours (the top landing) to face the music.

There were just too few wing officers around to notice the slight, boyish figure being escorted up the staircase furthest from the office by two tattooed bruisers. He was taken up to the cell and the thugs stood guard while Tom was raped, first orally and then anally, by the man to whom he owed his debt. He had blood on his grey prison-issue jogging bottoms as he staggered back down the stairs, utterly broken.

Typical prison cell from inside
However, that did not go unnoticed and two of us – fellow inmates, both Insiders (peer mentors) – saw that something was very wrong. We visited Tom in his cell, but he wasn’t ready to talk, except to confirm he was deep in debt.

We were sufficiently concerned to ensure that members of the wing staff were made aware that Tom was in serious trouble. I also spoke to the chaplain. Of course, we didn’t at that stage know the full story, but soon details started to circulate around the wing in whispers.

The head of residence, a female officer who had a very poor reputation among both her staff and prisoners, spoke to Tom and demanded that he tell her if he was being targeted and, if so, by whom. By now he was too terrified, desperate and ashamed to tell anyone anything other than that he was ‘being bullied’. Despite his blood-stained jogging bottoms, he didn’t tell her – or any other staff member – that he had been the victim of a very serious sexual assault. He also refused to name names. Having an aggressive female senior officer barking at him was not likely to encourage disclosure.

Tom was by now too terrified to leave his cell. He didn’t report for work and was duly downgraded from Standard level on the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme to Basic. His older cell-mate who had provided support and advice was moved out of their shared cell as Tom was to be punished alone. His small portable TV – rented from the prison at 50p a week – was also removed, as were most of Tom’s few personal possessions. Thoughtfully, however, the two wing officers left the coaxial cable for the television in his almost empty cell.

In-cell rented TV set: not on Basic
Tom was left on Basic for about a week, confined to his cell for around 23 hours a day. He had previously been on what is known as the ‘ACCT’ (Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork) monitoring system as it was suspected that he might self-harm or be suicidal when he was recalled to prison. However, that was not taken into account when he was placed on Basic.

During association periods Tom remained locked in his cell. He was often unable to shower or even telephone his family on the wing pay phones as duty officers sometimes ‘forgot’ to unlock his door. Nevertheless, his creditor – the rapist – could be observed hovering around outside his locked cell warning him through the observation window to keep silent about his ordeal or face much worse punishment for ‘grassing’.

Coaxial TV cable
Tom died alone in his cell. After the evening roll check on a warm summer night he rigged up a makeshift gallows by tying his little table to the top bunk using torn bedsheets. He used the TV coaxial cable to make a noose and, just to be sure he wouldn’t survive, he also used a prison razor blade to cut his femoral arteries. Had he not died of asphyxiation, he would have bled out. He intended to kill himself.

His body was not discovered until the following morning roll check. We were kept locked up for most of that day, but I could see what what happening in his cell as it was opposite mine. It took the industrial cleaning team two days to clean out the cell once the police had finished making their enquiries.

That is not the end of this appalling case, however. The fact that two of us had alerted staff to Tom’s plight before his death was written out of the official record. Neither of us was interviewed by the local police. We were also not called to give evidence at the subsequent inquest many months later.

In fact, the institutional cover-up went far higher and deeper than that. Shortly after Tom’s tragic death, the man most responsible for the awful train of events was permitted by the head of residence to organise the collection among prisoners to buy a wreath for the lad’s funeral. He was then designated to read the lesson in the prison chapel during the memorial service. Finally – and most disgustingly – he was given special permission by a governor grade to write a personal letter of condolence to the dead boy’s mother in which he claimed that he had been Tom’s closest friend on the wing. If that alone doesn’t make you feel sick to your stomach, then I don’t know what will.

A day or so after the memorial service at the prison I put in an application to speak to the governor. I was called up to see a recently arrived deputy governor grade who interviewed me together with the wing governor. I explained my concerns over Tom’s death and the way in which it was being handled. During the conversation it became clear that they both knew not only that this young man had been subjected to a horrendous sexual assault, but they also knew the identity of the rapist. The wing governor named him during our discussion, not me. Yet this entire meeting was off the record. It was never mentioned at the inquest or to the police.

PPO: no response to letter 
I was then asked by the deputy governor whether I intended to do anything further. I told them that I had already written to both the HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. The two governors exchanged glances. Within a matter of days I and the other prisoner who had reported our initial concerns had both been ‘ghosted’ to other prisons. The cover-up was in full swing. Neither the HMIP or the PPO ever replied to my letters, although I have kept copies.

I heard from fellow inmates that the prisoner who had assaulted Tom was moved about a month later to a dangerous and severe personality disorder unit (DSPDU) at a high security prison where I believe his remains to this day. However, this fact was also never referred to at Tom’s inquest.

To this day, Tom’s family are totally unaware of the true circumstances of his terrible, lonely death in custody. I have obtained a copy of the inquest report. It is a whitewash and an utter disgrace. Members of the prison staff who gave evidence told blatant lies to the coroner and the jury, although ultimate responsibility must rest with HM Prison Service. Tom was supposedly in its care and he, and his family, were let down at every stage.

In the light of recent events concerning suicides in our prisons, I now feel obliged to share this story with readers of the blog. Hopefully, I have ensured that the details given above are vague enough to prevent identification of either the prison or any of the individuals involved, other than myself. There are some things you leave behind when you leave prison. This is not one of them.

38 comments:

  1. That's a very difficult read. I'm almost glad his family haven't heard the full facts behind his death. He deserves far better.

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    1. I tend to agree, but in reality they should have been told, as should the coroner and the inquest jury.

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    2. What a very cruel and lonely end to a young life. Even in prison certain prisoners need help. But unless there are more officers funded this sadly will probably not be the last. Good on you for highlighting the blatant cover up and hypocrisy. The poor lad can't be hurt anymore, he is at peace

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  2. stark truths about the vulnerability of those under the state's supervision. Horrible to read how the different factions aligned themselves to preserve their status quo. Grim.

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    1. Sadly all true. Several of us do know the truth and we still discuss this by phone, even several years on. Cover-ups tend to be the norm these days.

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  3. Disgraceful and utterly dehumanising behaviour by the system. My thoughts are with his family. Had he not suffered enough and lost all respect and hope then to have that animal read at his funeral
    Truly shocking

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    1. All very true. You can imagine how the rest of us felt in that packed prison chapel, especially those who knew what had really happened.

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  4. Probably the most powerful thing I've ever read about prisons. Thank you for writing it.

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    1. Thank you for your comment and for reading the post. I only wish I hadn't had to write it, but the public deserves and needs to know the truth about what can happen in our prisons.

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  5. A woman committed suicide at Downview after being told by a very stupid social worker that she would never be allowed to see her children again. The prison covered up what happened and prison staff lied at the inquest hearing. Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident outlined in the blog but one which happens over and over in HMPS. Governors and staff need to be held to account. Alex - did you ever follow up with HMIP and the PPO regarding your letters once you got out? I suspect that staff withheld any responses you may have been sent.

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    1. Absolutely tragic. Some so-called professionals should not be allowed anywhere near vulnerable people. In my experience for every few decent staff there is always at least one incompetent and another dangerous sadist who actually enjoys causing pain and suffering. These folk should never be allowed near prisoners owing to the havoc they can wreak.

      As you write, cover-ups are very common in HMPS and private prisons. Coroners should approach deaths in prison with extreme caution for that reason. Yes, HMIP is aware of the situation, but that is because I sent my letter via my solicitor as legal mail so it could be copied and put on file in case I was called to any inquiry. I wasn't in the end.

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    2. Social workers are a waste of space, 3 years at college and they think they can make decisions, I hate them with a vengence. Screws, well some are jobs worths, not all some recognise prisoners are human and usually have deep rooted problems from childhood.

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  6. This is gut-wrenching! Even worse is that it is just one example of prisoners who don't understand "the game" who end up getting backed into a corner by it and feel that death is the only way out.

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    1. Sadly these tragedies occur far too often in our prisons. Not all deaths in custody are self-inflicted, but too many are and at least some of these could be avoided if proper care was given and staff followed proper procedures. Neglect is one of the major killers in prisons.

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  7. A difficult read indeed, brought tears to my eyes. I've met a few "Toms" during my time inside and it's so painful to helplessly watch them deteriorate. Such cover-ups just add to the pain for the family. Whilst I'm sure his family would want to know every detail of his final days I really hope they never know the true circumstances.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. I agree. The impact of a death of the wing, especially of such a young person can reverberate for years afterwards. Although I have alluded to the incident in earlier posts dating back to 2014, it took me about four years to feel able to tell the whole story. I still feel angry about the whole affair.

      I have agonised over whether to contact his family, but I felt that in the end they had some kind of closure at the inquest and raising the horrific circumstances with them so long afterwards would just inflict needless pain and reopen old wounds. On the other hand, I just wish the prison staff responsible could be brought to justice. Sadly, I fear that's just a dream.

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  8. Tough subject, well written, and - sadly - on the money. I'm so glad to be away from that environment...the ACCT process, though well intentioned, is hugely flawed...it's a box-ticker and not a care provider. Frankly - and given how staffing and morale are - I'm surprised there aren't more DIC's...

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    1. Thanks for your comments. I agree. The ACCT system would only work if all staff followed procedures and there were enough staff to do the job properly. Unfortunately there are too few staff and some - not all - of these are either lazy or negligent. Until all these issues had been dealt with, deaths of all kinds in prison, including suicides, will continue to occur.

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  9. If only the prison authorities gave as much effort to preventing bullying and suicides as they do to covering these things up when they happen...

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    1. I fully agree. Unfortunately, the default setting seems to be to cover backs, rather than tell the truth and really learn lessons that are put into operation.

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  10. As someone who volunteers time for a suicide charity (that is commissioned for use by the prison service), this account is similar to many that I and my colleagues receive on a daily basis. The violence, degradation and humiliation that takes place is heartbreaking. But there are still many, many more who don't call or are unable to find the words to talk. It's good that such information is being spoken about. Change needs to happen. Excellent blogging.

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    1. Thank you for your kind comments. I do believe that the general public deserves to know the truth about prisons, rather than the tosh the populist tabloids dish out daily. Much more needs to be said about self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in custody, but few people really want to speak out. When staff do, they risk suspension or dismissal from the service.

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    2. I am so sorry to read this. I was in prison from 80-85.I think it there were officers with a bit more of a social conscience then-which should be paramount when you are responsible for the young,the mentally ill and disadvantaged. You should aim for education and rehabilitation not brutality and misery

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  11. Hi Alex

    What type of impact does something like that have on a wing? Do inmates seek retribution on the perpetrator? Does it really affect people, or is it a case of 'same old's as heartbreaking as that is?

    Excellent blog btw.

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    1. Thank you for your comment and questions. I think many of us were affected by this death. There were tears in the chapel service and the whole place was subdued for days.

      I still talk about it with friends who also knew 'Tom' from our time in prison. We definitely still feel angry and I take my hat off to the brave prisoner who shouted at the awful custodial manager and told her she had blood on her hands. I wish it had been me, to be honest.

      In this case, as in many others, there is no appetite for retribution. Most prisoners just want to serve there time and get out. Others are lifers and can't afford to risk parole or progressive moves through the prison system by getting involved or complaining.

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  12. Thank you for writing this down. It must have been difficult.

    What an appalling abuse of power by the prison authorities. Shame on the government for allowing this degradation of fellow man happen under their watch.

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    1. Thank you for your comments. I agree. It is shameful, but that fact that these tragedies are still going on and the numbers are increasing should shame the senior prison staff and the politicians, but I fear they are beyond feeling shame or remorse.

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  13. Hello,

    I apologise if this is an inappropriate place to ask a question but; I'm trying to find out an answer to something and don't know where else to ask!

    My Dad has recently gone to prison - I'm taking care of all his affairs etc, he wants me to continue playing his lottery numbers which he has played since the very first draw - is it okay to keep it going in his name/on his account or is he not allowed to? Do I need to change it over to my name?

    Sorry again for the random question but, I've been searching online for bloody ages and all I get is sh!tty Daily Mirror sites etc!!

    Thanks, all the best.

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    1. Thanks for your question. In fact, it is against prison rules for prisoners to play games of chance or engage in certain financial transactions while in custody or even while on temporary licence.

      I imagine that your biggest problem would be if he won a major prize as the National Lottery could well disallow his claim on the grounds that his participation while a prisoner was not lawful. I think your idea of playing his numbers in your own name is probably sensible, because as I understand it, big claims need to be made in person and he wouldn't be able to do it, thus potentially wasting any stake money he'd laid out. At least if it is in your name then you could claim it and then sort things out with him in the future when he has been released.

      Hope that helps. Alex

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    2. Alex, thank you so much for your quick and detailed response...I'm going through absolute hell and with all the bloody paperwork and phone calls and having to move house and blah blah blah it's nice to have one thing (even if it's a minor one) ticked off the list - thank you again, I'm gonna try and hang around and read future posts etc - from what I've seen it could be really informative for me, cheers!

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  14. As a healthcare professional in HMPS, this blog disgusted me and upset me but in a very tragic way, didn't surprise me. I like to think I go above and beyond to help and protect any man who asks for my help and this blog is proof that there needs to more staff willing to believe in these prisoners! "When we treat man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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  15. I work in prison education. One of the problems we have at getting YO,s and older men to come education is they get paid more for prison work than for education. We've lost so many potentially great students through work allocations because they need the money for their burn and to pay for phone calls to family and friends.

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  16. Absolutely horrific, you were definitley right in not writing to his family.

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  17. Very difficult read, but important to get this out there. I'm sure many people are completely unaware of this dark reality. Thank you

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  18. Terrible, horrific way to behave.Younger offenders should be given the most support,instead this poor lad suffering so much that he took his own life. The prison Service is in a terrible state but that does not, in anyway,provide an excuse for a blatant cover up of an avoidable death. Well written and shared.

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  19. You said you wrote to the PPO and they did not write back to you? Why didn't you write to them again? Why didn't you ring them? Why not write to the Coroner that heard the Inquest he/she would need to re-open the Inquest as if evidence has been suppressed then the Inquest should be quashed.

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  20. Every prisoner that has served there sentence has a voice I hope they use it. People are uninformed people need to no what is happening. We need to stand together to make change.

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