Relatives of Woodhill prisoners who died begin legal challenge

Relatives of Woodhill prisoners who took their own life in jail have launched a judicial review, calling for action over safety procedures at the prison, which this year recorded the highest number and highest rate of self-inflicted deaths across the entire prison estate.

There have been 17 suicides at the high-security Woodhill prison, in Milton Keynes, since May 2013, and at least six this year, a rate of about one every 45 days.

Despite guidance from coroner reports and from the official body that investigates deaths in custody, the families claim the prison has failed to implement basic preventative measures, according to legal papers.

The claimants hope their legal challenge will secure a high court order compelling the Ministry of Justice and the prison’s governor to put in place measures to reduce the risk of self-inflicted deaths. These measures are already required by law, but the claimants believe the prison has not managed to get staff to follow the guidance.

A high court judge granted permission on Thursday for the judicial application to proceed.

Mr Justice Lavender rejected a MoJ submission saying that appropriate steps had been taken at the prison to prevent further deaths and that the families’ claim was misconceived and unarguable.

The judge said that reports on the prison revealed “repeated failure, despite earlier recommendations, to implement applicable policies”. He said this could not be dismissed as operational failures.

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, have brought the claim, together with Jamie Blyde, the brother of Daniel Dunkley, who died on 2 August 2016, four days after he was found hanging in his cell.

The high rate of suicides at Woodhill come at a time of rising deaths inside prisons nationally. In the 12 months to June 2016, there were 105 apparently self-inflicted deaths, a 28% increase over that period, and when taken together with homicides inside prisons this was the highest level for 25 years, according to MoJ figures cited in the legal challenge. The number of incidents of self -harm also rose by 27%, to its highest level since records began, over the same period.

Jo Eggleton, partner at the legal firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, who represents the families of nine of the 17 people who have died since May 2013, said: “This case is borne out of the families’ desperation. They don’t want another family to go through this and it absolutely crushes them when they hear that another one has. They have been through every legal avenue they can – there have been inquests and coroner recommendations and nothing has changed. It happens again and again in very similar circumstances.

“What’s missing is the detail of what the prison is doing. But when there are more deaths in similar circumstances it is hard to believe they are doing enough.”

The judicial review seeks to address the “exceptionally high current rate of self-inflicted deaths at HMP Woodhill”. The papers state: “There is no mystery about what needs to be done; the problem is that the defendants are not doing it.”

The safety procedures that need to be taken to reduce the risk of deaths are already set out in MoJ policy and are mandatory. But the families argue thatit is clear from investigations by the prison and probation ombudsman, made each time someone dies in prison, that the governor had “failed to put in place appropriate general measures for the protection of inmates from suicide”. In one coroner’s report, there was clear frustration at the prison’s failure to implement their recommendations.

The report says: “There needs to be an urgent review as to why the necessary measures to prevent suicides from recently admitted prisoners have not been implemented.”

The summary of the families’ case states: “The reports identify similar failings occurring in case after case. They include repeated failures to comply with the requirements of national policy on suicide and on emergency response.”

One of the key recommendations is that the governor should ensure that there are full suicide risk assessments for newly arrived prisoners. The legal papers state that in seven in nine deaths where an inquest was heard, there was no compliance with the regulations setting out how prisons should respond to a medical emergency.

Deborah Coles, director of the charity INQUEST, welcomed the legal challenge. “The shocking failure of HMP Woodhill to act on a body of recommendations exposes the absence of a robust system to ensure that action is taken. Repeated calls for urgent change are ignored and deaths continue.”

An MOJ spokesperson said: “This matter is the subject of ongoing legal proceedings, so it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”