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Eamonn McCann: How her daughter's death made Pauline female prisoners' friend

Pauline Campbell (60) was found dead a fortnight ago by the grave of her only child, Sarah.

The death of the retired college lecturer was a blow to women in prison across these islands. They had had no more doughty or indefatigable champion.

The Queen's University criminologist, Professor Phil Scraton, quotes the response of a former Northern Ireland prisoner to news of Ms Campbell's death: "(She was) an example of how even a single voice of protest, if persistent, can leave its impact on the world."

Pauline had been a tower of strength and a source of comfort to the families of Annie Kelly — found hanging by ligatures fashioned from strips of an anti-suicide blanket in the punishment cell in Mourne House in Maghaberry in September 2002 — and Roseanne Irvine — discovered hanging in her cell in Maghaberry in March 2004.

Pauline's world had been shattered when police told her by phone of Sarah's death in Styal Prison in Cheshire in January 2003. The teenager had taken an overdose of prescription drugs, apparently in a bid for a transfer to the prison's hospital wing. Forty minutes passed before an ambulance was called. Then the paramedics were held back at the prison gates. She was dead when they reached her. She had been in Styal for less than 24 hours, beginning a sentence of two and a half years for manslaughter.

The court had heard that her father had left the family when Sarah was four and that she'd then been sexually abused by a relative (not her father). She was raped when she was 15, became clinically depressed and began taking drugs. At 17, she was hopelessly addicted to heroin. In 2002, she and another teenage addict hassled a pensioner and RAF veteran, Amrit Bhandari, for money for drugs. Mr Bhandari collapsed and died on the street.

Sarah volunteered an account of her role and gave evidence against her co-accused. For fear of reprisal, upon arrival at Styal, she pleaded to be put on a 'vulnerable prisoners' wing. Her medical records showed that she had severe mental health problems. But this was missed, and a series of other mistakes led to her being taken to the segregation unit where she was to die the following day. At 18, she was the youngest of six women to perish in Styal in a 12-month period. The jury at her inquest found that 'a failure in the duty of care' had been a major factor in her death.

Left alone — she had no other relatives — her mother began researching the incidence of suicide among female prisoners and became shudderingly aware that the manner of Sarah's death wasn't as unusual as she, like most others, had always assumed. She threw herself into a campaign for women prisoners' rights. All who encountered her afterwards speak of the energy, dedication, indomitability, with which she went about fighting her unfashionable cause.

She wrote hundreds of letters and emails to newspapers, barraged phone-in programmes when any adjacent topic came up, belaboured MPs, organised and spoke at public meetings. She worked closely with established prisoners' rights organisations. She became a trustee of the long-established Howard League for Prison Reform.

Every time a woman died in a prison in Britain, Pauline would travel to the institution and sit down to block the first van to appear bringing in new inmates and ask the driver to take the women to some safer place, not here. Invariably, eventually, the police were called. She was arrested 15 times.

In April, she joined MPs, campaigners and other bereaved parents at the launch of a new study of the deaths of women in custody. Afterwards she said: "Since my daughter died, 41 more women have died in prisons in England alone. I have been so angered by this ... We need to stop sending mentally ill people to prison ... The Government is scared of the tabloid press, which is a sorry state of affairs. We need a fundamental change of policy."

Friends say she had lived for, doted on, her daughter. For all the vibrancy of her campaigning, from the moment the phone call came with news of Sarah's death, she'd been hollowed out inside from grief. It was, must have been, the grief which fuelled her fervour that, finally, overwhelmed her spirit. In her last letter to him, just a few days before she died, in response to a quote from Rosa Luxemburg — "Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for those who think differently" — she wrote to Phil Scraton: "I have this amazing feeling of freedom. I don't have paid employment. I don't have any savings, but I do have the freedom to act in accordance with my conscience ... It's very liberating."

If a society is measured by the way it treats the most vulnerable in its care, Pauline Campbell helped us measure up. She was a heroine to all who need and crave justice. Her persistent voice left its impact on the world.

Belfast Telegraph


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