Relatives of prisoners at HMP Woodhill who have taken their own lives are to bring a legal challenge against the institution’s governor and the justice secretary for allegedly failing to introduce basic safety measures. Eighteen prisoners have killed themselves at the jail in Milton Keynes since early 2013 despite repeated recommendations and guidance from coroners’ reports and official bodies that investigate deaths in custody.
The most recent death at Woodhill was before Christmas, shortly after the high court granted permission for the case to be heard. Deaths in custody reached a record high in England and Wales last year. In 2016, there were 119 self-inflicted deaths; the previous year there were 89.
The action has been brought by Pearl Scarfe and Julie Barber, the mother and sister of Ian Brown, who took his life in his cell in Woodhill on 19 July 2015, and Jamie Blyde, the brother of Daniel Dunkley, who died on 2 August 2016, four days after he was found hanging in his cell.
The families are seeking to persuade the court to order that the governor of Woodhill prison and the justice secretary, Liz Truss, take urgent action to reduce the risk of self-inflicted deaths in the future. Woodhill had the highest suicide rate of any prison in 2016; seven prisoners killed themselves there last year.
Barber said: “Ian was much loved. Our loss has been unimaginable. We all miss him every day. I believe if he’d had the help and support he needed he’d still be here. Every time I hear about another death in the prison, I think: ‘Why?’
“If lessons had been learned when my brother died, all those families would not have had to go through what we have had to go through. It’s hard for us to hear about more deaths. It makes me angry that suicides have happened that could have been prevented if changes had been put in place, as they should have been.”
The judicial review, to be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, is being supported by Inquest, the organisation that helps relatives at coroners’ courts. Inquest says it is concerned about the lack of a national oversight mechanism to monitor, audit and follow up actions taken in response to recommendations by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and coroners.
Deborah Coles, the director of Inquest, said: “The number of self-inflicted deaths occurring in prisons in England and Wales is currently at record levels. It is therefore more vital than ever that preventative actions are identified, changes implemented, and sustained improvements enforced to prevent future deaths.
“The current system for learning lessons and implementing changes arising from deaths in custody is not fit for purpose; it does not adequately prevent future deaths, meet the hopes and needs of bereaved families, or satisfy the wider public interest.
“The deplorable situation at HMP Woodhill is just one stark example of a much wider national problem. Deaths occur time and again as a result of repeated failings. Families are told that lessons will be learned, but nothing changes. The reality is that the Ministry of Justice has wholly failed to address the unacceptable rise in self-inflicted deaths.”
Jo Eggleton, a solicitor at the law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, who represents the families of Brown and Dunkley, said: “[They] have shown great strength in bringing this claim. Despite the awful ordeal they have been through, they have put themselves on the line to try and protect others and prevent future deaths.
“They and the other families of men who have died at Woodhill that I represent share this common goal and have worked together to try and make it possible. They should be recognised and applauded for that. It’s just a shame that this claim has had to be brought at all.”
In a letter to Truss last week, the Labour MP Harriet Harman, the chair of parliament’s joint committee on human rights, called for a national oversight mechanism “with a duty to collate, analyse and monitor learning outcomes and their implementation arising out of deaths in prisons”.
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