Prison service faces lawsuit after woman’s suicide

The husband of a woman prisoner who killed herself in jail after repeatedly threatening to commit suicide is to sue the prison authorities.

Brian McKeown’s decision to lodge civil proceedings over his wife Frances’s death inside Hydebank Wood Women’s Prison in Belfast comes as an investigation by the Prisoner Ombudsman flagged up 18 issues of concern relating to the incident and other elements of her care in custody.

Mrs McKeown hung herself in May 2011 only hours after an inmate in the separate young offenders centre in Hydebank Wood took his own life.

Among her findings, Ombudsman Pauline McCabe discovered that despite entering custody with an extensive history of self harm, psychiatric hospitalisation and a diagnosed personality disorder, it took over six months for the 23-year-old mother-of-two to be seen by a prison psychiatrist.

Mr McKeown’s solicitor Kevin Winters said he would be issuing a High Court action for damages over what he described as the “glaring failures” highlighted in the report.

“The awful tragedy of Frances McKeown’s suicide should draw a line under the threat of prison suicides ever happening again,” said Mr Winters.

The action will be against both the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, which is responsible for prisoners’ healthcare.

Mrs McKeown, who was living in Belfast prior to her arrest in September 2010, was awaiting sentencing after being convicted in relation to a hijacking.

During her probe, Mrs McCabe examined another incident involving Mrs McKeown inside Hydebank Wood that ultimately led to the suspension and disciplining of its then governor Gary Alcock.

The ombudsman said Mr Alcock, who has since resumed work elsewhere in the Prison Service, did not properly investigate claims from Mrs McKeown that she had witnessed a female inmate and a prison officer kiss.

The governor’s role in probing this allegation was subsequently subject to a specific and separate investigation by Mrs McCabe.

In her final report into the prisoner’s death, Mrs McCabe did examine whether the incident had led to her being bullied by fellow inmates, who wrongly believed she had informed the authorities about it.

The ombudsman found that a form of non-physical bullying had taken place but that it was unlikely this directly factored in her suicide five months later.

The suicide of 19-year-old Samuel Carson in the young offenders centre on the day Mrs McKeown died triggered a tannoy announcement inside the women’s prison and an immediate lock down.

Mrs McCabe said this may have affected Mrs McKeown’s mood, noting that she had referred to it in her prison journal, and questioned why the so-called “code blue” alert was broadcast in the women’s prison and not confined to the young offenders centre.

But the ombudsman identified that as only one of a number of potential factors leading up to her decision to take her life.

Mrs McCabe highlighted ongoing concerns about her children being in foster care, fears over the length of her sentence and her ability to access non-prescribed anti-depressants – drugs that combined with her prescribed medicine may have actually made her more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts.

The ombudsman said staff in Hydebank Wood had made many efforts to help and support the prisoner.

In response to fears that Mrs McKeown was suicidal, Supporting Prisoners at Risk (SPAR) booklets, which prompt increased monitoring of vulnerable inmates, were opened on five occasions in the seven-and-a-half months she had been in prison.

The ombudsman said Mrs McKeown was also encouraged to take part in a range of therapeutic and counselling services.

But Mrs McCabe said there were serious shortfalls in elements of her medical care.

Those included a failure to request her medical notes on her committal to jail and the decision to withdraw her medication for almost three weeks in February 2011.

The ombudsman also raised concern about the length of time Mrs McKeown was locked up alone in her cell, noting those times were when she appeared to suffer most with her mental health problems.

“Frances was a troubled girl and her mental health issues were extremely challenging, but she responded well to therapeutic interventions and purposeful activity and it was clearly the case that she was at her best when she had human contact and things to do,” said Mrs McCabe.

“However, it was also evident that she found night time and other times when she was locked in her cell especially difficult.

“It is regrettable that, at times, she was locked up for too long. In particular, she found the lockdowns over the period of Easter and the Royal Wedding, which preceded her death, very testing. On the night of her death she was also agitated by being locked down earlier than usual as a result of another prisoner’s death that same evening. It is possible, given her fragile mental health, that this affected her.

“The investigation also found that Frances was able to access a non-prescribed anti-depressant while in prison that, combined with her prescribed medication, may have affected her mood at the time of her death.”

Mrs McCabe added: “It was also the case that Frances experienced a number of additional stress factors prior to her death. In particular, her two infant children were being fostered and she was upset that her sentence would be much longer than she had anticipated.

“It is also to note that the investigation found evidence that Frances was bullied when it was believed that she had told prison staff that she had seen an officer kiss an inmate.

“However, whilst it is not possible to say what impact this had on Frances’s already fragile mental health, an examination of all the related evidence suggests that it is unlikely that bullying by other inmates was a direct cause of her death at the time when it occurred.”

Mr McKeown’s solicitor said that while the widower wanted to acknowledge the efforts made by prison staff, he was “deeply distressed” by some of the issues highlighted in the ombudsman’s report.

“The report documents those failings including serious lapses in healthcare provision at a time when she was at risk of suicide and had not even seen a psychiatrist for six months after her arrival in prison,” said Mr Winters.

“The report highlights 18 areas of concern – we demand that these will be taken on board immediately by the agencies concerned.”

Mr Winters claimed the authorities had not learned lessons from previous suicides of female prisoners.

“If her death is not to be in vain then this report needs to be implemented in full and without compromise,” he said.

“To that end we call on the DOJ (Department of Justice) to take responsibility and ensure this will happen.

“We have now written to the coroner asking for an immediate inquest and we will issue High Court civil proceedings on behalf of Brian McKeown against the authorities for loss and damage resulting from Frances’s death.”

In response to the ombudsman’s report, the director general of the Northern Ireland Prison Service Sue McAllister said she would take action to reduce the number of lockdowns in Hydebank Wood.

“This is obviously a difficult day for the family of Frances and my thoughts today are very much with her family at this time,” she said.

“It is clear that Frances was a vulnerable person and although she did undertake some purposeful activity while in custody, she clearly found prison both demanding and challenging.

“Additionally, factors in her personal life, external to the prison setting, no doubt placed her under additional stress and a death of a prisoner in the nearby Young Offenders Centre earlier in the evening may also have had a profound effect on her.”

Of the 18 areas of concern flagged up, six directly related to the Prison Service, nine to the health trust and three to both organisations.

In regard to the number of lock downs in Hydebank Wood, Mrs McAllister said: “I recognise that lock downs cause difficulties for some prisoners, particularly those who are vulnerable. It is my intention to work with governors to reduce the amount of lock downs to an absolute minimum and only use them as a last resort.

“I will ensure that this is a priority issue for the new governor at Hydebank Wood when an appointment is made.”

The director general said the report also highlighted the need for staff to be continually alert to signs of bullying.

“As a service we have a duty of care to all prisoners and must make all reasonable efforts to eliminate attempts aimed at creating a threatening or hostile environment for some,” she added.

“There are definite learning points in this report.”