Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

Prison report to be given to family

Former Ombudsman Pauline McCabe investigated events surrounding the death of Frances McKeown.

A confidential report that heavily criticised the response of jail authorities to an allegation made by a prisoner who later went on to kill herself should be handed to her family, a coroner has ruled.

Frances McKeown, a 23-year-old mother of two with a history of mental health issues, hanged herself inside Hydebank Wood Women's Prison in Belfast in May 2011.

A Prisoner Ombudsman investigation raised serious concerns about her care in custody prior to her death - a probe that prompted her widower Brian to take legal action against the Prison Service.

But Ombudsman Pauline McCabe, who has since left the post, also examined a separate incident involving McKeown during her time in Hydebank - namely an allegation she had witnessed a female inmate and a prison officer kiss.

Mrs McCabe found that the prison authorities did not properly investigate the claim.

A separate report compiled by the ombudsman on the episode, which happened five months before McKeown died, was not published along with the death-in-custody probe, and was instead passed to the Prison Service.

McKeown's widower had asked for the report to be disclosed to him by the Prison Service ahead of the inquest into her death.

At a preliminary inquest hearing in Belfast today, coroner Suzanne Anderson said she had now read the report and decided it was potentially relevant.

Ms Anderson said she had also examined another previously unpublished report related to McKeown's case - that was compiled by the Scottish Prison Service - and said it should also be given to the family.

"I have been provided with both reports and deem both are potentially relevant so they should be made available to the next of kin," she said.

In her main report into the prisoner's death, Mrs McCabe did examine whether the episode involving the complaint had led to McKeown being bullied by fellow inmates.

The ombudsman found that a form of non-physical bullying had taken place but that it was unlikely this directly factored in her suicide.

While she did not publish the separate report, she did include the conclusions in the main publication.

They revealed that Mrs McCabe considered the investigation into McKeown's allegation to be ''wholly inadequate'' and one that breached the authorities' duty of care.

Nessa Murnaghan, representing the Prison Service, said her client did not currently have a copy of the unpublished Prisoner Ombudsman report. Ms Anderson advised her that she could obtain it from the ombudsman's office.

In regard to the report by the Scottish Prison Service, Ms Murnaghan told the coroner that significant redactions would have to be carried out on the document before it was passed to the family. She indicated the process could take six weeks.

McKeown, who was living in Belfast prior to her arrest in September 2010 and was awaiting sentencing after being convicted in relation to a hijacking, was the second prisoner to commit suicide in Hydebank Wood in 24 hours.

In the young offenders' centre, which is separated from the women's prison, alleged sex offender Samuel Carson from north Belfast took his own life.

A preliminary inquest hearing regarding the 19-year-old's death was also held before Ms Anderson in Belfast Coroner's Court this morning.

The coroner asked for a series of documents and statements relating to the suicide to be disclosed to his family.

They included a Prisoner Ombudsman report and associated statements; police statements; a review of Carson's care conducted by health authorities; other medical notes and a post mortem report.

Carson had been remanded in custody to the centre on charges of raping and sexually abusing a 15-year-old girl and making indecent images of a child.

The ombudsman's report into the prisoner's death raised concerns that claims he was repeatedly bullied and threatened by other inmates were not properly handled by the authorities.

The court heard that disclosure would take around four weeks and then proceedings would shift to agreeing a witness list.

Denis Moloney, representing Carson's relatives, said the family wanted to avoid any delay in getting the inquest heard.

"As one can appreciate, appearing for a family in circumstances that have arisen, it would be good to progress matters expeditiously because of their vulnerability," he said.

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