07 October 1997

INQUEST the organisation that supports the families of those who die in custody today called for the remit of the Ombudsman to be extended so that he can investigate prison deaths.

Following a meeting with Sir Peter Woodhead and Deborah Coles - Co director of INQUEST - he has agreed to raise his concerns about extending his remit with the Home Office minister Joyce Quin at a meeting next week. INQUEST has also written to Jack Straw on this matter.

The Prison Ombudsman’s current remit only allows him to investigate complaints from prisoners and once a prisoner is dead he can not look at the case and is therefore not in a position to take complaints from the families of those who die in prison. Given the narrow remit of the inquest and its focus on the medical cause of death many of the wider issues cannot be addressed. In the absence of any independent investigation into prison deaths INQUEST has called for the Prison Ombudsman’s remit to be extended. This would allow a more thorough and open investigation into all the circumstances of a death and would address the concerns of families so often overlooked.

Speaking on Radio Four’s ‘Face The Facts’, broadcast on Wednesday October 8 at 7.20pm and Thursday 9 October 09.05am Sir Peter said: “I am here to make sure that justice, openness and fairness prevail throughout the prison service. I’ve been approached by not only the families but by some of the campaigning groups that are acting on behalf of the families and this needs to be discussed I think with ministers and with the prison service and I’m sure that we can at least consider whether we can do rather better than we’re doing at the moment because I think something needs to be done for the sake of the families."

Deborah Coles, Co director of INQUEST, welcomed his support and said: “There should be no more serious issue for the Prison service than the unnatural death of someone while in their care. Current investigations into prison deaths are characterised by secrecy and do not allow families to participate in the investigation or to be informed of the outcome. It is shocking that the Prison Ombudsman is precluded from looking into complaints from the families of those that die. This only reinforces our concerns about the failure of the Prison service to be properly brought to account and compounds the families’ belief that the deaths are not taken seriously. Already this year 49 prisoners have taken their own lives, other unnatural deaths raise questions of medical neglect and brutality. Inquest after inquest points to the need for a change of policy and practice and yet the Prison service consistently fails to learn the lessons. An extension of the Ombudsman’s remit would go some way to redress the strong impression that these deaths do not matter and, even worse that they are an accepted feature of prison life.”