More Failings In HMP Woodhill

A jury yesterday found further significant failures in the management of a vulnerable prisoner in HMP Woodhill, including a failure to properly assess his mental health and to take all reasonable precautions to prevent Thomas from taking his own life.

The Milton Keynes jury had been hearing evidence in the inquest into the death of Thomas Morris, who was 31 at the time of his death. On 26 June 2016 Thomas was found hanging in his cell.

Thomas had been in the prison since January 2016 and from April onwards substance misuse staff, a chaplain, and other prisoners had all repeatedly raised concerns about Thomas’s deteriorating mental health. The jury was told that, shortly before he died, Thomas had been delusional, unable to focus on anything other than what he thought were bugs crawling under his skin. Yet Thomas was not on the mental health team’s caseload. They had seen him but had concluded that his presentation did not require their intervention at the times they saw him. A week before his death Thomas was moved off the wing where he had been supported; placed on the “basic regime” (which punished him by isolating him from others); and was moved into a cell on his own after he had thrown his television off a second floor landing because it was talking to him.

The jury was told that suicide/self-harm assessment and monitoring procedures (known as the ACCT) had not been properly followed, despite criticisms that had been levelled at the prison from as early as 2014 following a number of other deaths at HMP Woodhill. Thomas was the fifteenth out of eighteen self-inflicted deaths in HMP Woodhill between May 2013 and December 2016. The inquest heard that at least fifteen of those deaths had been prisoners alone in their cell. All eighteen had been deaths by hanging.

The jury was also shown a letter and petition that prisoners had created in the days after Thomas’ death. This had been signed by 67 prisoners, which represented all but two of the wing that Thomas had been on for most of his time in the jail, and around 10% of the total HMP Woodhill population. The letter had been written by a prisoner who himself had experience as a mental health support worker, and set out in detail the symptoms from which Thomas had been suffering, and the ways in which the prisoners thought that Thomas had been failed. It is thought that this is the only time that a group of prisoners have felt compelled to take such action. The inquest heard that the prisoner responsible for the letter and petition had been threatened with disciplinary action for his coordinating it.

The jury found that the following all contributed to Thomas’ death:

• a failure to properly assess Thomas’ mental health
• a failure to carry out appropriately the ACCT procedures and reviews
• a failure to share and use relevant information concerning Thomas Morris
• that it was not appropriate after Thomas had thrown his television on 19 May to transfer him off HU2A to HU4; to allocate him to a single cell or to reduce him back to basic privileges
• a failure by the prison properly and appropriately to implement previous recommendations.

HMP Woodhill prison has been the subject of repeated criticisms from families, Coroners, inquest juries, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman, and various review reports. The jury heard that things have now changed and from 2018, the prison will no longer take remand and short term prisoners. That is likely to mean that prisoners like Thomas, who present with the problems typical of those newly in prison and suffering with substance misuse and mental health problems, will no longer be managed alongside long-term high-risk prisoners. At least 15 of the 18 men who have taken their own lives were on remand, awaiting sentence or serving short sentences. This action has been taken in response to the criticisms raised and has been welcomed by the families of prisoners who have died.

Ralph Morris, the father of Thomas, said:

“ The inquest process has answered the questions we had about Thomas’ care. We are grateful to the jury for confirming our thoughts about the various failings we have heard about. We are glad to hear that there have been changes made and the fact that there have been no self-inflicted deaths in the prison this year brings us some comfort. We agree with the Coroner that it is vital that lessons are learnt immediately. If they had been Thomas might still be with us.”

Jo Eggleton, the solicitor for Mr Morris, and who has acted in many of the Woodhill cases, said:

“The failings in this case are sadly all too familiar, although the scale and breadth of them are particularly shocking, especially as they came in June 2016 at a time when the prison was already under scrutiny and aware of most of these problems. The inquest heard that a recent report by Stephen Shaw (a former Prison and Probation Ombudsman), commissioned by the Secretary of State because of the judicial review brought by some Woodhill families, concluded that staffing difficulties have resulted in a completely unacceptable situation at Woodhill that has been allowed to persist for far too long. In this context, the decision to drastically change Woodhill’s main function from a local remand prison to a Category B training prison is a welcome step to ensuring the safety of men incarcerated there.”

Mr Morris’s family was represented by Jo Eggleton of Deighton Pierce Glynn solicitors and Nick Armstrong of Matrix Chambers.

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