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Jail experts to tackle suicide surge

Penal reformers raise the alarm after five convicts kill themselves in one year at Whitemoor high-security prison

This article appeared in the Observer on Sunday January 20 2008 on p14 of the UK news section. It was last updated at 23:40 on January 19 2008.

A specialist investigation team is to be sent into one of Britain’s high-security jails after five of its prisoners committed suicide in just over a year.

The spate of deaths at Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire has shocked penal experts, who are calling for an urgent independent inquiry after receiving private briefings from senior staff.

Each year between 80 and 90 prisoners commit suicide in Britain’s prisons, which currently hold some 82,000 inmates. For five men to kill themselves in just one jail, which has around 450 prisoners, is considered statistically significant, according to experts. Two other inmates at Whitemoor have also died of natural causes within the last year.

Probation workers at Whitemoor report that in the past year there has been a significant increase in the use of segregation units at the prison, while there have been cutbacks in the number of staff on duty at night.

David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City university, who has been briefed on conditions within the jail by two of its senior members of staff, said questions needed to be asked about the role of the prison managers and in particular its governor, Steven Rodford, and his deputy, Phil Novis. ‘It’s the governor and his senior management team who set the tone for everything that happens in that jail,’ Wilson said.

Frances Crook, the director of pressure group the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: ‘The frequency of suicides in custody has always been a barometer of the health of our prisons, and in Whitemoor’s case the barometer appears to be off the scale.’

Ministry of Justice sources said the head of the prison service, Phil Wheatley, believes Whitemoor’s governors are ‘model’ managers who have transformed the prison. When Rodford took over as governor, 60 staff at Whitemoor were off sick each day. This has now been cut to 30, according to the ministry sources.

But there are still signs of deep discord within Whitemoor. Two prison officers have been suspended at the jail. It is believed one of them feels they have been made a scapegoat for the suicides. It is also claimed by staff that drugs and mobile phones within the prison are in wide circulation and that, according to internal surveys, morale among officers and prisoners is low.

As a high-security prison, Whitemoor could be expected to hold prisoners who are prone to suicide. It has a specialist Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder unit, which deals with some of the most difficult offenders, and holds a number of al-Qaeda terrorists, including Saajid Badat, jailed for 13 years for plotting with the shoebomber, Richard Reid, to bring down an aircraft.

But all the men who took their lives at Whitemoor were white and had served considerable lengths of their sentence. Normally suicides occur within the first few weeks of offenders starting their sentence. In the five years before the first of the recent suicides there had been no self-inflicted deaths at the prison, which has been given a four-star rating by the prison service – the highest. The first Whitemoor inmate to take his life was Christopher Vaggers, 31, who was serving a 10-year sentence for rape. He was found hanged in the DSPD unit on 19 November, 2006.

Patrick Purcell, 40, who was in the segregation unit, died on 17 February last year after tying a ligature around his neck. Jonathan Durrant, 25, serving life for GBH, was found dead in his cell from self-inflicted wounds on 25 July.

David Croke, 64, who was serving life for murder, hanged himself on 20 November while in the segregation unit. He was on self-harm watch and had told a prison chaplain he was suicidal. James Forgan, 42, serving life for rape was found dead in his cell on 10 December.

It is not the first time questions have been raised about Whitemoor. In 2006 MPs filed an early day motion welcoming a police investigation – Operation Pond – into allegations of racial abuse and assaults by staff at the prison. Just over half – 52 per cent – of black and ethnic minority prisoners at Whitemoor claimed that they had experienced racism while at the prison. ‘The most number of complaints we get are from Whitemoor,’ said Lubia Begum of the Prisoners Advisory Service.

Rodford, governor of Whitemoor, said in a statement to The Observer that the dead prisoners had been treated well. ‘External investigating bodies (both the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and NHS Serious Untoward Incident investigations) have concluded that the prisoners had received the highest quality of clinical care. In addition, I have personally requested that a prison service support team visit Whitemoor to check the safeguarding systems in place.’

But Henry Bellingham, a local Conservative MP and a shadow minister of justice, said the prison was ‘completely out of control’.

He said: ‘Ministers need to get a grip. They are burying their heads in the sand on this issue.’

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