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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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 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.