Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Prison service sued over suicide

Frances McKeown hanged herself in prison in May last year

The husband of a woman prisoner who killed herself in jail after repeatedly threatening to commit suicide is to sue the prison authorities.

Brian McKeown's decision to lodge civil proceedings over his wife Frances's death inside Hydebank Wood Women's Prison in Belfast comes as an investigation by the Prisoner Ombudsman flagged up 18 issues of concern relating to the incident and other elements of her care in custody.

Mrs McKeown hanged herself in May 2011 only hours after an inmate in the separate young offenders centre in Hydebank Wood took his own life.

Among her findings, Ombudsman Pauline McCabe discovered that despite entering custody with an extensive history of self-harm, psychiatric hospitalisation and a diagnosed personality disorder, it took over six months for the 23-year-old mother-of-two to be seen by a prison psychiatrist.

Mr McKeown's solicitor Kevin Winters said he would be issuing a High Court action for damages over what he described as the "glaring failures" highlighted in the report. "The awful tragedy of Frances McKeown's suicide should draw a line under the threat of prison suicides ever happening again," said Mr Winters.

The action will be against both the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, which is responsible for prisoners' healthcare. Mrs McKeown, who was living in Belfast prior to her arrest in September 2010, was awaiting sentencing after being convicted in relation to a hijacking.

During her probe, Mrs McCabe examined another incident involving Mrs McKeown inside Hydebank Wood that ultimately led to the suspension and disciplining of its then governor Gary Alcock.

The ombudsman said Mr Alcock, who has since resumed work elsewhere in the Prison Service, did not properly investigate claims from Mrs McKeown that she had witnessed a female inmate and a prison officer kiss.

The governor's role in probing this allegation was subsequently subject to a specific and separate investigation by Mrs McCabe.

In her final report into the prisoner's death, Mrs McCabe did examine whether the incident had led to her being bullied by fellow inmates, who wrongly believed she had informed the authorities about it. The ombudsman found that a form of non-physical bullying had taken place but that it was unlikely this directly factored in her suicide five months later.

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