9th October 2013

Wednesday 9 October 2013 at 10am, for three weeks
Before HM Coroner for Surrey Richard Travers
Sitting at Coroner’s Court, Civic Offices, Gloucester Square, Woking, Surrey GU21 6YL

Sarah Higgins was 30 years old and had three children aged 5, 6 and 11, when she died at HMP Bronzefield on 8 May 2010.  This was the first of two women’s deaths in this institution within just 10 months of each other.

Sarah was remanded into custody and sent to HMP Bronzefield by Brighton Magistrates Court on 7 May 2010.  She had a history of substance misuse.  Prior to going to HMP Bronzefield Sarah had been in the custody of Sussex police where she was under constant observation due to concerns that she may have secreted drugs.  Following her remand by the magistrates Sarah was escorted to HMP Bronzefield by SERCO, a private escort company.  SERCO were aware of the concern that she may have secreted drugs but, unlike the police, did not keep Sarah under constant observation.

On arrival at HMP Bronzefield Sarah was seen by medical staff, including a nurse and a doctor. She was assessed as being a substance misuser and was put on a detoxification programme that included several different prescribed drugs intended to manage her illicit drug dependence.  She also went through the usual searching procedures; no illicit drugs were found.

Later that evening Sarah vomited and was clearly unwell but she was not referred to medical staff.  Shortly after being sick, Sarah was given her prescribed dosage of methadone (part of her detoxification medication).

In the early hours of the following morning, on 8 May 2010, a member of prison staff found Sarah unresponsive and lying on the floor of her cell.  After some initial delay, an ambulance was called and prison staff attempted to resuscitate her.  These attempts were sadly unsuccessful and she was pronounced dead.  A small plastic container was found on Sarah after she had died that contained various drugs. It would appear that Sarah’s death was due to the toxic effect of drugs she had been given and/or taken.

Sarah’s family are concerned that Sarah was not given appropriate or adequate medical care at HMP Bronzefield, the privately run prison where healthcare provision is the responsibility of Sodexo.  In addition, Sodexo sub-contract the provision of General Practitioners to a private company called Cimarron UK Ltd.  The family is concerned that GPs working in a prison setting receive appropriate training.

Sarah’s family hope the inquest will address the following issues:

  • Whether the prescribed medication given to Sarah was the sole cause or a contributing factor in her death;
  • The extent to which, if at all, illicit drugs in addition to the prescribed medication contributed to her death;
  • The treatment and management of Sarah’s drug dependency whilst in the custody of Sussex police;
  • The passing of information concerning risk from Sussex police via SERCO  to HMP Bronzefield;
  • SERCO’s policy for accepting individuals from the police where there is a known risk of secreted drugs;
  • The reception of Sarah at HMP Bronzefield and in particular the failure to acknowledge or respond to the risk recorded in her Prisoner Escort Record that she may have secreted drugs on her;
  • Sarah’s treatment at HMP Bronzefield in relation to the management of her drug dependency;
  • The prescription decisions made by the doctor upon Sarah’s arrival at HMP Bronzefield;
  • The decision to dispense Sarah methadone in close proximity to the time that she was unwell;
  • The emergency response by prison staff on 8 May 2010;
  • The quality of record keeping by reception staff including by medical staff;
  • The prescription regime and the policies in place at HMP Bronzefield in relation to drug dependency management;
  • The policies and procedures in place at HMP Bronzefield in respect of the provision of healthcare.

INQUEST has been working with Sarah’s family since 2011. Sarah’s family is represented by INQUEST Lawyers Group members Megan Phillips and Jasmine Chadha of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors and Alison Gerry of Doughty Street Chambers.


Notes to editor:

  1. INQUEST has serious concerns about the ongoing issues relating to the deaths of women, outlined in our report Preventing the deaths of women in prison published earlier this year. Sarah Higgins' case was included in the report.