Deaths In Prison Factsheet

Maxi’s shocking death, and particularly the discovery of her body hidden in the chapel, has hit G wing hard. Sylvia ‘Bodybag’ Hollamby lived up to her name by bagging the body in black plastic to conceal it from the prison inspectors. Because this is Larkhall she only lost her position as Wing Governor, but in the Prison Service she would have lost her job!

In 2000 there were 48 self inflicted deaths in prison, 34 non-self-inflicted (including deaths from natural causes and drug overdoses) and two murders. The most common cause of self-inflicted death in prison is hanging, but there has been at least one death at a women’s prison caused by suffocation using tissues.

Just because they are in prison, prisoners are facing crisis points in all sorts of different parts of their lives. They may have lost their home, job, family relationships and often face additional problems because of mental illness, drug or alcohol problems or just trying to cope – as Maxi was – in a difficult setting.

As mentioned in the Factsheet on self-harm, the Prison Service provides prisoners with access to the Samaritans and to prisoners trained by the Samaritans (Listeners) to whom they can talk if they feel desperate. There are also procedures in place to ensure that prisoners thought to be at risk of harming themselves are regularly observed and assessed. The Director General of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, has gone on record saying that reducing the number of suicides in prison is his top priority.

When a death does occur there are very clear procedures which have to be followed. The prison officer who discovers a prisoner who has attempted suicide, or appears to have died, immediately attempts resuscitation and calls the doctor. An ambulance will be called if there is any prospect of reviving the prisoner. If the prisoner is clearly dead then the doctor will certify death. The cell is then sealed and the Coroner’s Officer takes charge of the cell and its contents until the investigation is complete. Should any suspicion exist that the prisoner has been murdered then the police are obviously involved and the cell is treated as a crime scene.

Al was obviously in the cell when Maxi died, though whether her role in Maxi’s death will come out is not yet clear. If there is another prisoner in the cell (and they are not suspected of involvement in the death) then they are moved to a different cell and given opportunities to talk to prison staff, Samaritans and the trained prisoner Listeners. Prison staff always find prison deaths very shocking and they are brought together as soon as possible after the death to be debriefed by the duty governor and the prison Care Team which is available for them to talk to. Other prisoners are always in a state of shock as well, and they too are given a debrief and provided with the opportunity to talk to Samaritans and Listeners (this is important as they may prefer to talk to prisoners). Tina didn’t get that sort of support so it is juts as well the two Julies were on hand.

The Governor decides who, from the prison staff, will be responsible for liaison with the Coroner’s Officer and with the prisoner’s family. The family is invited to come to the prison to meet with staff and other prisoners, and to see the cell where the death took place if they wish to. The prison Governor or Deputy Governor usually hosts this visit.

At the same time as the Coroner’s Office is investigating the death, the Prison Service sets up its own investigation with a team chosen by the Area Manager from another prison. Once the Coroner’s Office has completed its investigation a full inquest is held at which prisoners and staff may be called to give evidence.

These issues are extremely difficult and disturbing for all concerned. If you need to speak to someone about deaths in custody you can contact the Samaritans.

You could also speak to the Prison Service Safer Custody Group which you can contact via the switchboard on 0207 217 3000.

INQUEST is a charity which helps families through the inquest and enquiry process after deaths in custody.

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