Styal prison: Owers sounds warning of more inmate deaths

The chief inspector of prisons has warned of more deaths at Styal women’s prison if services for vulnerable inmates do not improve.

Anne Owers made the call after the fourth critical report on the prison since 2002. Six women have died since the last inspection in 2006, including one last month.

Owers’ latest report, published today, found that a lack of training and support had left prison officers struggling to cope with the “extreme and complex” needs of inmates in the prison’s therapeutic unit.

Use of force

Owers raised particular concern over the “inappropriate” use of force on women who self-harmed, and said 1,335 incidents had been recorded between January and July last year.

The inspection, from 1 to 5 September last year, found there was no firm action plan to ensure that changes agreed after previous deaths had been maintained. A total of 12 woman have died at the prison since 2000, including Alison Colk last month.

More than one-third of women arriving at Styal reported feeling depressed or suicidal and most were heavily dependent on drugs and alcohol, the inspection found.

Mother and baby unit

Owers praised some “innovative and admirable” approaches, including a mother and baby unit and the placement of a social worker to support young adults, but concluded the prison was unable to fully meet women’s needs.

Physical and health provision was still inadequate despite some “very good quality” services, including mental health assessments for every woman.

Owers called on the Prison Service to recognise the level of investment needed and questioned whether vulnerable women should be placed in prison. “While they are there, there is the need to provide a much better resourced and professionally led therapeutic environment to support them and the staff looking after them,” she said.

Slow progress

Owers said she “could not rule out the likelihood” of further deaths despite an “upward curve” of improvement. She also criticised slow progress in implementing the recommendations of a government-commissioned review of vulnerable women prisoners, published in 2007.

The review by Baroness Corston, prompted by the deaths of six Styal inmates between 2002-3, recommended a drastic reduction in the use of women’s imprisonment. Ministers accepted most of the recommendations and last May published a national service framework for women offenders.

Owers added that the current independent review of mentally ill prisoners by Lord Bradley should be published “as soon as possible”.

Call for closure

Responding to the inspection report, The Howard League for Penal Reform called for the prison to be closed. Charity Inquest, which support families of those who have died in custody, said urgent action was needed.

John Gunn, brother of Lisa Marley, who died at Styal in January last year, asked: “How many more women have to die before something is done?”

Michael Spurr, chief operating officer for the National Offender Management Service, defended the prison’s progress, highlighting improvements in activity and resettlement work and “constructive” relationships between staff and prisoners.

More information

Full inspection report

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Death of woman in prison down to Styal’s lack of resources

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