Prison system’s ‘failings’ caused death of Pentonville inmate found hanged
Staff lacked knowledge of records showing 54-year-old was at risk, inquest finds
31 March, 2017 — By Joe Cooper
Pentonville Prison: Inmates were ‘behind their doors’ all day because of staff shortages, inquest told
THE death of a Pentonville prisoner was caused by “numerous failings… from the time he came under care until the moment of his death”, an inquest has found.
Multiple areas of the system at the Caledonian Road jail were at fault, a jury examining the death of John Williams concluded on Friday.
Mr Williams, a Catholic, was found hanged in his cell after being refused permission to go to the prison church in June last year.
He had trashed his cell and was verbally abusive to staff, which meant he was put on the prison’s “basic regime”.
Mr Williams had a history of depression and had attempted suicide in the prison a year earlier.
The 54-year-old had been prescribed anti-depressants and was also under an assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) document, which ensures greater care for prisoners at risk of self-harm or suicide.
But the jury at St Pancras Coroner’s Court found that prison staff had a lack of knowledge of Mr Williams’ records, particularly the ACCT. Senior coroner Mary Hassall indicated that she would be making a prevention of future deaths report. She has made several similar reports over the past two years where prison staff, employed by the government, and care staff, from private company Care UK, have been found wanting in relation to inmates who have killed themselves.
During the inquest, a senior prison officer described conditions at the prison at the time of Mr Williams’ death.
“Staff morale was low. We had very little staff,” the officer said. “The prison regime at the time meant the majority were behind their doors all day – there were not enough staff to facilitate exercise and association.”
She said attacks by inmates on staff were “quite frequent” and that the situation could be improved if there were more prison officers.
Mr Williams, who had lived in Barking, was considered a trusted prisoner and was given a job as a painter, but was also known to be impulsive and talked about hanging himself.
His cellmate said he was frustrated he had not been paid for painting work and so had been unable to buy cigarettes.
The next morning Mr Williams trashed his cell, smashing an observation panel. Mr Williams hung himself with a ligature made from bed sheets while his cellmate was at church.
The jury found that Mr Williams died due to an accident.
Prison officer numbers have fallen at Pentonville from 300 to around 200 in the past four years, and at one point were as low as 168 for a prison population of more than 1,300.
Dave Todd, Prison Officers’ Association representative for London, said: “There has not been a decent transition of staff from Holloway [the women’s prison, now closed] to Pentonville.
“Holloway was a totally different environment. Now, in Pentonville you’ve got high stress levels, a lack of recruitment – staff are leaving in droves. It is a crisis.”