Inadequate searching and risk assessment led to brutal prison murder

The Inquest into the death of Taras Nykolyn in HMP Woodhill concluded on 29 September 2021 at Milton Keynes Coroner’s Court. Taras Nykolyn died in one of the most brutal and sustained attacks the prison system has ever seen, and in what was supposed to be one of its most secure units.

Taras was killed in a planned attack by three other prisoners in the Managing Challenging Behaviour Strategy (“MCBS”) unit at HMP Woodhill on 5 June 2018. His attackers were apparently just “bored” (as they put it) and frustrated after a planned move to another prison had been cancelled days earlier. The prisoners – all of whom had recent records relating to serious violence against other prisoners as well as against staff – obtained and smuggled on to a caged exercise yard two “shanks” consisting of razor blades and improvised handles. They also obtained a ligature. These were used over the course of 28 minutes during which horrified staff looked on. The ferocity of the violence, the number of the perpetrators, and the absence of specialist resources meant that it was impossible to go in earlier.

Several officers were unable to give evidence because they were too traumatised by what they saw over the course of that 28 minutes. The rest spoke of its impact on them. Several spoke of how particularly disturbing it was that the prisoners returned repeatedly to the body, even after Taras was obviously dead, mutilating it further. Some suggested that it appeared they were trying to remove his head.

Following the disclosure of an internal lesson learning review (which senior officers in the prison had not seen until just before the hearing started) the Ministry of Justice accepted that the standard of searching on the unit had been poor, that risk assessments of prisoner association had also not been sufficiently quality assured, and that there should have been a more rigorous assessment of exercise on the yard. The latter might have included a review of the use of dogs, PAVA spray, and pyrotechnics. None of that had been available or authorised for use by the team who had had to be assembled at speed.

At the conclusion of the hearing the Ministry of Justice also apologised for these failures, expressing its deep regret. The apology was addressed to Taras’s family, but also to the court, and to the prison officers.

The jury went further. In its narrative conclusion it found that the poor quality of the searching, and of the risk assessments, had led to Taras’s death

Following the conclusion of his inquest Taras’ wife said:

“I have been very shocked and saddened to hear the evidence at the inquest.  I have heard how staff were not adequately trained to do their jobs and officers were just brought in to fill gaps, that prisoners did not have sufficient therapeutic input or any initiatives to put them on right path.

I was particularly concerned with the evidence I heard from the former head of security in the prison who took no responsibility for the failings in relation to searching of prisoners and had made no changes to the system as a result.  They had also not been provided with the internal investigation designed to learn lessons.  No lessons have been learnt.  Where is the accountability?  These officers are still in their posts or have been promoted. 

I always voiced my concerns about Taras being on that unit as I did not feel that was the right place for him.  He came into the prison system but found that the system gave him no hope that one day his life could change when he would be released.  In my opinion the prison system utterly failed him and he died in the barbaric and inhumane circumstances.”

Christina Juman of Deighton Pierce Glynn who represents the family said:

“Another thing that this inquest has shown is that there is a real issue with secure units like the MCB unit at Woodhill taking prisoners into specialist environments in order to progress them, but in fact brutalising them and making them worse.  There was little or no progression for any of the men on that unit and sadly that resulted in the loss of life Taras Nykolyn in the most brutal way”

Counsel Nick Armstrong of Matrix Chambers and Christina Juman of Deighton Pierce Glynn represented the family.

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