When a child is murdered the incident garners enormous press
coverage and ripples of sympathy flow across the country. But the
death of a child in custody has a different effect. Rarely, if
ever, do the public flock to the prison gates to lay flowers or pay
Instead, the bereaved families are left to grieve for their
children alone without the nation’s sympathy, and many face a
battle to discover how their child died while in the alleged care
of the state.
According to the Youth Justice Board, which is responsible for
under-18s in prison, it is correct procedure to visit the next of
kin as soon as possible, “in the middle of the night if necessary”,
says a spokesperson. “Under no circumstances should the family be
told on the telephone.”
But that is exactly how Pauline Campbell heard her 18-year-old
daughter, Sarah, had died after ingesting a quantity of
prescription drugs at Styal prison and young offender institution
(YOI) in January 2003 (see below). On the day in question Campbell
had not even been informed when Sarah, unconscious, was driven to
When Campbell returned from an evening out, unaware anything was
wrong, she was greeted by answerphone messages and when she
eventually spoke to the police over the phone, they informed her
Sarah had died four hours earlier.
Yvonne Scholes, whose son, Joseph, died at Stoke Heath YOI, was not
told until nearly four hours after his death (see panel, left).
“The Home Office press office was informed several hours before
me,” she says.
Howard League for Penal Reform director Frances Crook says it is
“outrageous” that anyone is told about their child’s death over the
phone. Parents should always be told face-to-face by the
But she believes support for families has improved dramatically
over the past five years. Families are given the opportunity to
meet staff, see where their loved ones were held and funeral
expenses should be covered, she says.
But Helen Shaw, co-director of campaign group Inquest, believes
there is little support for these families. Although the charity
provides legal and practical advice, it cannot provide therapeutic
support for families and it is concerned by the lack of emotional
support available. Indeed, Campbell had to complain repeatedly and
even go as far as contacting her local MP before she was offered
anything more than six sessions with a bereavement
Investigations and inquests into their children’s deaths are
another cause of pain, frustration and anger for parents.
Investigations are often lengthy, complicated and distressing for
the families. When police returned the clothes that Campbell’s
daughter had worn when she died, they failed to warn her they were
bloodstained. She was left wondering whether the bleeding occurred
at the prison, or at hospital when they were trying to save her
Since April, prisons and probation ombudsman Stephen Shaw has been
responsible for reviewing deaths in prisons. He was commissioned to
investigate the death of 39-year-old Julie Walsh after she became
the sixth woman to die in Styal in the year up to August 2003. As
well as Sarah Campbell, the list also included 20-year-old Nissa
Although Shaw was tasked with examining whether there were any
similarities among the deaths, Campbell says this was ineffective
because he was not able to investigate the other five deaths. She
also raises concerns that a ministerial statement of Shaw’s
findings was released rather than the actual report.
And there are already concerns that Shaw’s team is struggling under
the burden of investigations and that, consequently, reports have
not been published. The Howard League wants the prison inspectorate
to take on this responsibility instead.
The wait for an inquest is even longer. The whole experience can
cause family breakdown, job loss and physical and mental illness as
families’ grieving is put on hold. Peter Blanksby’s daughter,
Petra, died aged 19 last November while on remand in New Hall
prison (see panel, right). He is still waiting until after the
inquest to bury Petra’s ashes, although he now knows this will not
be until next year. In the meantime, he is “walking round in
denial, with a sad, empty feeling”.
Inquest, Scholes and rehabilitation agency Nacro are calling for a
public inquiry into the deaths of children in the youth justice
system as so many of the issues cannot be addressed by an inquest.
Scholes particularly wants an inquiry to focus on the number of
children in prison, sentencing policy, compliance with the Children
Act 1989, resources and mental health issues.
It is hoped the latter would investigate why so many young people
with mental health problems are inappropriately incarcerated.
Blanksby says New Hall prison officers told him they were fed up
being used as a dumping ground for young offenders with mental
“There should not be so many young people sent to prison,” adds
Shaw. “There should be improvements in the way families are
supported, but the main issue is looking at alternatives to
On top of everything that families have to deal with, they often
face media prejudice. Just six days after Sarah Campbell’s death,
the local paper incorrectly referred to her as an alcoholic. After
the death of 14-year-old Adam Rickwood earlier this year, a tabloid
newspaper published an “awful” article about the child’s family,
says Scholes. “Somehow it’s as if our grief isn’t as profound. We
are solely judged on the fact that our child went to prison.”
As Inquest’s Helen Shaw points out: “You would not get the same
scrutiny of the family of a murder victim.”
– Community Care‘s Back on Track campaign is seeking to
apply pressure on politicians and the courts to reduce the number
of children and young people being held in custody. See the
campaign website at www.communitycare.co.uk/backontrack
Bearers of bad news
The Prison Service, which is responsible for offenders aged
18-20, says when a young person dies in prison the next of kin is
notified as soon as possible after the death. Unless it is
difficult for logistical reasons, the prison’s governor, deputy
governor or chaplain inform next of kin face to face.
For juveniles, the appropriate youth offending team and the
Youth Justice Board are also informed and social services are
notified if the child was in care. A spokesperson for the YJB,
which represents under-18s, says the Prison Service may appoint
someone from the prison or police to tell the family and this
person would become the family liaison officer from the death until
the inquest’s conclusion.
At secure training centres, the director appoints the family
liaison officer and the director would also make contact. In local
authority secure children’s homes, the home, local authority and
social services determine who will tell the family.
Yvonne Scholes’ story
Joseph Scholes, who was abused, self-harming and suicidal, died
at Stoke Heath YOI just nine days into his two-year sentence.
“I was contacted between three and four hours after my son died
although the Home Office press office knew before me,” says his
“A police officer came to my house and asked me if I was alone.
I don’t think he even told me Joseph had died, I just screamed
‘He’s dead, he’s dead’, ran inside, threw myself on the floor and
kept having to run to the bathroom to vomit, I was so utterly
“The police officer was kind but the prison governor was
offhand. I was screaming because I found it inconceivable that
Joseph had died while on the health care wing. Next day, the prison
offered to send a chaplain, but we declined.
“After that, we were given Inquest’s number then left alone and
had no further support from the prison or social services and
little help from the police. I had difficulty walking, let alone
driving, and had a disabled child to care for. Prison staff are
offered support in these circumstances, but families are totally
“I have no closure after Joseph’s inquest as it posed more
questions than it answered. It destroyed a part of me.”
Kirsty Blanksby’s story
Petra Blanksby, who had a history of abuse, prolific self-harm
and suicide attempts, died at New Hall prison. She was on remand
for arson after she tried to kill herself by setting her bedroom
alight. She self-harmed 92 times in prison.
Her sister, Kirsty, says: “I had been out of hospital for a day
after taking an overdose when the police contacted me to say my
twin sister was in hospital. I went to see her immediately and
prison officers, the governor, doctors and nurses were there. Petra
was having fits and they said the outlook was bleak. Five days
later we watched her die.
“I was absolutely devastated. We knew everything about each
other, we were both bullied and abused in care and, when you’ve
been through that, it’s hard to live on.
“Everyone was really supportive. Prison staff were really good
and invited us to a memorial service at the prison. The staff at
the hospital couldn’t have done more for us, although not every
hospital Petra contacted was as good as that.
“The NHS as a whole let her down. They didn’t want to deal with
her so she ended up in prison. The system does nothing for
self-harmers. I feel social services failed her and the courts
failed her as they should not send people with mental health
problems to prison.
“There needs to be more support for families. I know my dad was
very frustrated. As I was next of kin, he didn’t know anything had
happened until I told him. But my problem is not with the staff,
it’s with the system.”
Pauline Campbell’s story
Sarah Campbell died in January 2003 after she had been in Styal
Prison and YOI just one day. #
Her mother, Pauline, says: “The police told me on the phone that
Sarah was dead without asking if I had anyone with me. I received a
letter from the prison service a few days later but they didn’t
contact me on the phone at all. I had to identify the body on my
birthday. I was told originally that an inquest would be held in
six months, but it is likely to be two years later.
“I had no savings and had to borrow the £2,000 funeral
costs from a friend which was embarrassing and distressing. Seven
months later, the governor of Styal offered to reimburse me but I
said I would only accept the money if the Home Office introduced a
policy to offer to pay funeral costs following deaths in custody –
it is the least they can do.
“I am not satisfied that the police investigation was conducted
with sufficient vigour. And the Prison Service report into Sarah’s
death was apparently ready in April 2003 but not released to the
coroner until January 2004.
“I met ombudsman Stephen Shaw last September and as a grieving
mother was told the delay was ‘due to a quality control issue with
the commissioning agent’. “Of the six deaths in Styal prison in
the year to August 2003 there has only been one inquest, which
completely exacerbates my distress.
“I have no other children, I am divorced, have no partner and my
parents are dead. Campaigning is my way of keeping going. It has
been a constant fight.
“The loss of my only child has been a harrowing experience and I
have been profoundly distressed at the appalling treatment I have
received since she died.”
Violet Brayson’s story
“I had eight kids all together. Now I’m down to five.” Violet
Brayson lost a baby daughter to leukaemia but it’s the deaths of
two of her other children – and an incident in a young offender
institution that left her eldest son in a persistent vegetative
state – which still haunt her, writes Janet Snell.
The Braysons’ lives changed for ever 10 years ago when eldest
son Robert, then 18, was taken into custody for suspected car
theft. He was held at Brinsford YOI, Wolverhampton, which topped
the league table for the number of assaults on inmates.
Three days later Violet was told that her son was in hospital
having emergency surgery.
“They told me it was an alleged hanging but I don’t believe
that,” she says. “He loved life, he loved his baby boy, he was mad
about cars. There’s just no way he would try to kill himself. He
must have been attacked.”
The Braysons put all their energy into fighting for justice for
Robert. “I suppose his little brother, Aaron, listened to us going
over the case again and again. Then one day, when he was 12, I sent
him upstairs for being naughty and when I went up he had hanged
Eight months later, 19-year-old Anne-Marie Brayson, who had just
given birth to her second son, Daniel, was accused of stealing
£50 and remanded at Brockhill YOI near Redditch awaiting a
bail hostel place.
Her mother says: “She rang and said she was being bullied. Then
on 31 August 2001 she was found hanging in her cell.”
Violet and her husband believe the family can’t start to rebuild
their lives until they have inquiries to establish the full facts
surrounding the death of their daughter and the devastating
injuries sustained by their son. “The authorities have taken my
children. I want some answers on what they did to them.”