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Pentonville: campaigners call for action after latest prison suicide

Pentonville

John Williams, a 54-year-old Pentonville prisoner, killed himself at the end of last month

Carl Foot

Carl Foot was found hanging from the windows bars in his cell in December 2014

Published: 22 July, 2016
by JOE COOPER

PRISON campaigners are calling for urgent action to stop suicides in HMP Pentonville after a fifth person took their own life within its walls in 18 months.

The string of deaths – four of them since August – have been described as a “shocking reminder that the prison service is simply not learning from previous deaths”. 

John Williams, a 54-year-old prisoner who had been recalled to Pentonville for breaching his licence, killed himself at the end of last month.

And this week an inquest jury found that healthcare staff at the prison did not take immediate action in the case of 43-year-old Terence Adams, despite recording that he had a “high risk” of self-harm. Lorry driver and scaffolder Mr Adams, who had a history of suicide attempts, was admitted on Sunday November 8 and was seen by a reception officer, nurse and GP. He was found hanging in his cell a day ­later.

Senior coroner for inner north London, Mary Hassell, indicated she would be issuing a ­Prevention of Future Deaths report to the prison after the hearing at St Pancras Coroner’s Court on Wednesday.

Deborah Coles, director of the charity INQUEST, told the Tribune: “Prisons are overcrowded with impoverished regimes and conditions that cannot keep vulnerable people safe. There have been five deaths in the last 18 months in HMP Pentonville, which is a shocking reminder that the prison service is simply not learning from previous deaths.” 

Ms Hassell issued similar notices to the prison after inquests into the deaths of two other inmates, Carl Foot and Samuel Blair, both of whom had a history of mental health problems.

Understaffing and a failure of senior management to implement a control system to answer cell bells contributed to the death of Mr Foot, who was found hanging from the windows bars in his cell in December 2014. 

Medical staff at Pentonville were criticised over the death of Mr Blair, who killed himself in August. A jury found they did not properly assess his 20-year mental health history.

The prison, in Caledonian Road, was judged unfit for the 21st century by chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick in February.

Ms Coles said that what motivates families most following tragic deaths is the wish to prevent the same thing happening to some­body else, but that the latest report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons noted that recommendations for improvement were not being acted upon. “The same failures being repeated over and over again whilst strong recommenda­tions and inquest findings gather dust,” she added.

Ms Coles said there have been 60 self-inflicted deaths in custody across the country this year. “This death toll is unacceptable and should put any civilised society to shame,” she said.

The children of Mr Adams said in a statement read in court that they hoped their father’s death would “not be in vain”. They said they wanted answers to help “prevent this horrible situation in future”.

Two months after Mr Adams’ death Tedros Kahssay killed himself at Pentonville. He was awaiting trial for killing his girlfriend, Mambero Ghebreflafie, at a hostel for homeless people in Winchmore Hill just before Christmas.

Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “No one should be so desperate whilst they are in the care of the state that they take their own life. The high number of deaths by suicide show the true extent of mis­ery for prisoners and families – and for staff, who have been given the impos­sible task of keeping people safe in overcrowded prisons starved of resources. Penton­ville, which is designed to accom­modate 900 men, is actually holding more than 1,300.”

Both the Howard League and INQUEST called on new Justice Secretary Liz Truss to take “bold action” to tackle the problem.

“Crucially, we must stop throwing so many people into failed institutions, where they are swept away into deeper currents of crime and despair by the boredom, drug abuse and violence behind bars,” Mr Neilson said.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We take our duty of care to those in our custody extremely seriously and we make every effort to learn from each death. Our hardworking staff provide support to prisoners at risk of self-harm and suicide every day, but more must be done to help them. That is why we are investing £1.3bn to transform the prison estate, while also training new staff to respond effectively to prisoners experiencing mental health issues.”

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