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Why was Sarah, ‘a woman in torment’, sent to prison?

Campaigners’ anger over death of inmate they say needed support

21 July, 2017 — By Koos Couvée

Protesters at vigil outside Holloway Prison after Sarah Reed’s death in January last year

WHY was Sarah Reed, a vulnerable woman with a history of drug addiction and severe mental illness who was found dead in her Holloway Prison cell last year, behind bars in the first place?

This is the question campaigners asked time and again at an emotional vigil outside the Camden Road prison that was held after news of the death of the 32-year-old broke last year.

Ms Reed was found dead on her bed with a ligature on her neck made from a bedsheet on January 11, 2016. Having struggled with mental illness after her infant daughter, who had muscular atrophy, died in 2003, the decision to send her to prison was calamitous, women’s rights activists said.

Yesterday (Thursday), the jury at the inquest into Ms Reed’s death backed the campaigners, concluding that delays in delivering psychiatric reports which revealed she was not fit to stand trial contributed to her death.

The independent Prisons and Probation Ombudsman has also carried out an investiga­tion into Ms Reed’s death.

The inquest heard that Ms Reed, who was on remand for three months awaiting trial despite showing obvious signs of severe psychosis, was top of a list of inmates waiting to be transferred to hospital.

A letter to Central and North West London Healthcare NHS Trust to start the process of getting her transferred to hospital – sent three days before her death – arrived too late. She was in prison “solely for the purpose of [the court] obtaining one or two psychiatric medical reports as to whether she was fit to plead and stand trial”, the inquest jury said in its conclusion.

One psychiatric evaluation report was finalised on the day she was found dead, while another was completed after her death. Both found her unfit to be tried.

This was not “sufficiently timely” and contributed to her death, the jury concluded, adding: “If a timely fitness-to-plead assessment had been performed in compliance with the court notice, then Sarah Reed would not still have been incarcerated… at the time of her subsequent mental deterioration but in the hands of her community mental health team.”

Sarah Reed

Ms Reed was awaiting trial on a charge of attempting to cause grievous bodily harm. Her family have always maintained her innocence.

The jury heard that her care plan considered her at “low risk” of suicide or self-harm.

Prison officers and medical staff in C1, the prison’s mental health wing, maintained her “low risk” rating despite writing in her records: “She is completely psychotic, aggressive towards staff, making comments about God and the devil. She started rolling around in the bed and screaming.”

The decision to reduce checks on her from every 30 minutes to hourly was also “inappropriate”, the jury concluded.

Ms Reed had earlier been the focus of media attention after former police constable James Kiddie was caught on CCTV in November 2012 dragging her to the ground and repeatedly punching her in the head after arresting her on suspicion of shoplifting

After being reported by colleagues alarmed at the level of violence used, Kiddie was handed a criminal conviction for assault and kicked out of the Met in 2014.

Commenting on Ms Reed’s case, Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, the Finsbury Park-based charity which supported her family, said: “Sarah Reed was a woman in torment, imprisoned for the sake of two medical assessments to confirm what was resoundingly clear, that she needed specialist care not prison.

“Her death was a result of multi-agency failures to protect a woman in crisis. Instead of providing her with adequate support, the prison treated her mental ill health as a discipline, control and containment issue.

“The legacy of Sarah’s death and the inhumane and degrading treatment she was subjected to must result in an end to the use of prison for women.”

The independent Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, which carried out an investigation into Ms Reed’s death, is expected to publish its findings next week.

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