Socialist Worker

Women in custody: a shameful record of deaths in prison

by Esme Choonara
Issue No. 2096

Pauline Campbell speaking at last year

Pauline Campbell speaking at last year's United Friends and Family Campaign procession in London. The gathering remembers those, like Pauline's daughter Sarah, who have died in custody (Pic:

The report, published by campaign group Inquest, sheds light on the circumstances and institutional failings that have led to an alarming increase in self-inflicted deaths in women's prisons.

The report is the latest damning indictment of New Labour's prison policies.

The number of women in prison has almost doubled since 1997, despite no corresponding rise in serious crime committed by them. Around 90 percent of women prisoners were sentenced for a non-violent crime.

Between 1990 and 2007, 115 women died in prison. The vast majority of these, some 88 women, were self-inflicted deaths.

The new report shows that those dying are mostly young women who kill themselves very early into their sentence. Many are on remand and had not been sentenced yet.

The Inquest report also points to the high levels of mental health and addiction problems among prisoners and argues that alternatives to prison must be found.

Last year the government commissioned the Corston report into women's prisons after six women died in just 12 months in Styal prison in Cheshire.

It recommended that all women's prisons be closed down over the next ten years and replaced with small custodial facilities nearer their homes and families.

The government responded by saying it agreed with the report in principle, but that no money would be available to implement the recommendations.

In truth the problem is a lack of political will, not a lack of money. Rather than fix the problems, the government is channelling some £2.7 billion into three 'titan' prisons, each set to hold around 2,500 prisoners.

Meanwhile, conditions in existing prisons are set to get worse. The home office intends to save money by locking people in their cells for longer periods of time – including for whole weekends.

Numerous inquiries into deaths in prisons have highlighted serious failings in the criminal justice system. But Deborah Coles, director of Inquest and co-author of Dying On The Inside, says that lessons are not being learned.

Speaking at a launch of the new report on Wednesday of last week, she said, 'I have done this work since 1990. This report says nothing new. It highlights how little has changed.'

Kirsty Blanksby, whose twin sister Petra killed herself aged 19 in New Hall prison in 2003, also spoke at the launch.

Petra had serious problems and should not have been in prison. Kirsty said, 'I had problems myself. But people believed in me and I was sent to an NHS therapeutic centre. So I am here today and living a good life.'

She called for more health facitilies and alternatives to prison. 'A lot of NHS facilites are being closed down. Prisons are becoming a dumping ground for people with problems. We need answers and we need something done.'


'My daughter needed medical care'

Peter Smith's daughter Rebecca killed herself in 2004 in Buckley Hall near Rochdale (which is now a privately run mens' prison).

'Rebecca had serious mental health problems since she was a teenager,' he told Socialist Worker. 'She should never have been in prison.

'She was sentenced to two and a half years for arson after she set fire to a settee. It was her settee and she was the only person in the flat. She had just spoken to her psychiatrist and said that she wanted to set fire to the settee. She didn't harm anyone else.

'Three and a half years later, we are still waiting for an inquest into Rebecca's death. We have been refused funding for legal representation at the inquest – so we are fighting that decision too.

'Rebecca needed proper medical care. Psychiatric nurses have years of medical training, unlike prison officers. It is wrong to lock up sick people in this way.'


One mother's battle to change the system

Pauline Campbell's 18 year old daughter Sarah died in Styal prison in Cheshire in January 2003.

Sarah suffered from clinical depression. She took her own life on the first day of her three year sentence after spending six months on remand at the jail.

Sarah's was one of the six deaths in 12 months at Styal that prompted the recent Corston commission into women's prisons.

Since Sarah's death, Pauline has fought tirelessly to expose the scandal of women's deaths at the hands of the state.

She told Socialist Worker, 'Since my daughter died, there have been 41 more women dead in prisons in England. I have been so angered by what has happened.

'Since 2004, I've been engaging in direct action. I've held 28 demonstrations to date, been arrested 15 times and charged five times. I am back in court next week for charges relating to a protest.

'It's disgraceful that a grieving mother has to do this to try to get some action to stop the deaths.

'The government must make funding available to implement the Corston report. We need to stop sending mentally ill people to prison. The government's new plan to build 'titan' prisons is utter nonsense. Overall crime has fallen since Labour came into power in 1997.

'I think Labour is scared of the tabloid press. It's a sorry state of affairs if we have criminal justice policy determined by newspapers. There is no reason why we should be expanding the prison population – we should be trying to contract it.

'We need a fundamental change in policy, otherwise things are not going to get better. Shame on this government for allowing these deaths to keep happening.'

To order a copy of Dying On The Inside or for more information on deaths in custody, go to » www.inquest.org.uk


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Tue 8 Apr 2008, 19:57 BST
Issue No. 2096
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