The vexed question of the privatisation of the British prison service has again come to the fore following the death of Peter Austin at Brentford magistrates’ court on 29 January.
Disturbing evidence emerged at the inquest held in July, where the verdict was accidental death aggravated by lack of care by the guards.
Securicor staff (employed to guard prisoners in courts for five years) left Peter hanging by his T-shirt from the light fitting for five to ten minutes as they discussed whether he was faking his death or trying to kill himself for real. Their excuses included the stereotypes that have now become so familiar in other black death cases: they were afraid he would be unpredictable, he might be violent, he might be feigning and getting ready to attack. After he had been cut down, a bail hearing went ahead outside his cell as he lay slumped on the floor inside.
Securicor is one of four private companies with a Home Office contract to escort prisoners from jails and police stations to court and to look after them during detention in cells. Securicor’s training course for its officers, which covers legal issues, prison management, security supervision and first aid, is supposed to bring its staff to the same standard as prison officers.
Lack of professionalism and humanity
It emerged at the inquest that the seven custody staff, who had had only three hours’ training on how to recognise and provide support to suicidal detainees, ignored all the signs that Peter showed. Despite the fact that he had tried to cut his wrists with a plastic fork at Chiswick police station, had seen a police doctor three times, that accompanying documents stressed he was mentally ill, that he had told officers he was hearing voices and had then smeared his cell with excrement, Peter was not placed on a special watch, as recommended forpotential suicides. Nor was medical help sought for him; he was not, the Securicor staff decided, physically ill.
The organisation Inquest, which has been helping the family of Peter Austin, is appalled at what happened. They have called the Securicor staff training in first aid and suicide prevention grossly inadequate. ‘Staff displayed a complete lack of professionalism and humanity’, said an Inquest spokesperson.
Who monitors Securicor?
The death has also brought to light the fact that the panel of lay observers to London courts, appointed to look at the conditions in which prisoners are kept and transported, was specifically told in June 1994 that the members were not to comment on matters relating to Securicor as these were ‘contractual’ and therefore ‘commercially confidential’ between the Home Office and the company. According to a letter published in the Independent from one lay observer who resigned in disgust in 1996 : ‘Almost from the outset, we were limited in what we were permitted to comment on; matters relating to Securicor staff or the physical conditions in which prisoners were held, we were told, were beyond our remit, thereby rendering us virtually impotent.’
This is the second time that a black man has died whilst in the ‘care’ of a private security firm. In June 1990 Kimpua Nsimba’s body was found in Harmondsworth detention centre 20 hours after he had hanged himself. It emerged then that Group 4 had no training in suicide prevention. The coroner at Austin’s inquest was obviously concerned about levels of training too. And the Prison Service has since said that it will review the suicide training of its private companies. The Prison Service also took the unusual step of immediately suspending the seven Securicor staff involved in the death.