Prison failings that led to young woman’s prison cell suicide
originally by Mikey Powell Campaign
published 26th December 2006
Updates listed at the foot of this item
At 8:10am on the morning of 28th July 2004, Rebecca said ‘yes please’ when asked if she wanted breakfast in her cell at HMP Low Newton near Durham. By the time the officers brought the tray at 8:50am, she was already hanging. At 9:15am she was prounounced dead. “They told me she’d hanged herself with a belt,” says her mother Janet Wade. “I said, ‘That’s daft, she didn’t take a belt in.’ Then I remembered she’d had one on her coat. She used that and she hanged herself.”
Rebecca was 22, and had been in prison for two days. She’d been sentenced for non-violent drugs-related offences, and she was typical both of the women who populate our prisons, and of the women who are dying in them. The numbers are chilling. In 1997, one woman killed herself in prison. In 2003 there were 14 self-inflicted deaths. And in 2004 it was 13 and counting at the beginning of December. If you include men, the numbers of people dying in custody are greater, per year, than the number of people being executed when we had capital punishment. Why?
Janet Wade had no idea that women were dying in prison until her daughter added to the toll. It was all so unexpected. “Rebecca was never suicidal,” she says. “And she wasn’t worried about going to prison. She’d done five days on remand, and she was fine. This time was different.” There were a mother and daughter on the same wing who knew Rebecca, and who abused her verbally.
Rebecca phoned her mother on Monday, her first night in prison, and was crying. “She was frightened, and she asked the governor to move her. But they didn’t. I’m sure she hanged herself as a cry for help, so that they’d take her seriously and move her. I think she thought the officers would be straight back in with the breakfast tray.” But they weren’t.
Unlike large numbers of the women’s prison population, Rebecca was not a self-harmer and had never tried to commit suicide. But she was typical in other ways. Around 80% of women in prison have drug, alcohol or mental health problems. Many have been abused, and the majority are imprisoned for non-violent offences such as theft. “Rebecca was a registered drug addict,” says Janet, “but she was on methadone. She said she didn’t mind going to prison because it’d get her off the drugs.” If she’d stayed alive longer than two days, she would probably have been disappointed in that, too.
Frances Crook of the Howard League for Prison Reform commented “Sentencers see women repeat offending,” says, and they send them to prison because they think they’ll be properly treated there.” They’re wrong.
At HMP Styal in Cheshire, it took the deaths of six women in 13 months and two damning reports from the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers (on one occasion she witnessed women fitting and vomiting in their cells), before a methadone programme was finally introduced.
Before that, though Owers reported that the Governor had twice been turned down for funding for a detox unit, women withdrawing from drugs – about 80% of Styal’s population – were only given dihydrocodeine (DF118), described by one professional as being as useful as treating an amputation with aspirin. A prison staff member testified to having had no knowledge of the prison’s suicide and self-harm prevention policy. There was evidence of poor, inadequate communication.
Anna had threatened to hang herself a couple of weeks before, and on the day of her death was on an open 2052SH form, the prison document used to indicate that an inmate is at risk of self-harm. She was still placed alone in a double cell.
The inquest revealed evidence of carelessness, to be sure, but also of under resourced, understaffed officers trying to cope with desperately troubled women. “You see women walking around with ligatures round their neck,” one prison worker said. “Just loose, but it’s still up to the staff to persuade them to take them off.” In 2002, there were 810 2052SH forms opened at Styal, or 810 instances of women threatening to harm themselves.
“I think the jury should know,” testified one officer, “that these women come to prison with a lot more baggage. Often they’re primary carers, they’ve got children, and they’re not expecting a custodial sentence. We’re prison officers, not experts. The staff every day are saving lives, sometimes just by speaking to someone at the right time.”
Another senior officer, when asked by a barrister whether it was not a serious matter that even the prison’s suicide prevention coordinator had never seen the prison’s policy document on self harm and suicide, said “I wouldn’t say serious. It would have been nice.”
“Nice?” says Frances Matthews, Anna’s mother. “I wanted to say, it would be nice if I still had a daughter!” The prison staff’s inability to realise they were accountable, she says, was “breathtaking.”
She was heartened, though, by the jury’s findings. Since March 2004, inquest juries are allowed to lay blame for deaths in custody with the prison system.
This the jury in Anna’s inquest did, giving a narrative verdict that Anna died because of an “inappropriate and insufficient detoxification programme,” a “totally inappropriate” decision to leave Anna alone in a cell with a bunk bed, and “a total lack of awareness and staff training in the management of persons at risk of self-harm and suicide.”
It was bruising for the prison service, and enough for Frances. “I really think that Anna is more at peace now,” she says, and she wants to let her rest. Other mothers of dead daughters are in more combative mood, such as Pauline Campbell, a retired lecturer from Cheshire whose 18 year-old daughter Sarah died at Styal in January 2002, having ingested over 100 anti-depressant tablets. “I had no idea of the appalling state of women’s prisons before Sarah’s death,” she says, forcefully. “People must speak out about it. It’s medieval.”
Highly critical verdict in Rebecca Turner inquest (PDF file – off-site)
12 May 2006
Woman found dead in prison cell
29 July 2004
Suicides prompt ‘She Wing’ closure call
16 November 2003