Gulf between theory and practice

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The Independent Online
About a year ago, Home Office civil servants responsible for monitoring the privatised prisoner escort service declared themselves satisfied with all aspects of training undertaken by Securicor custody officers.

Yesterday, it appeared that they had revised their opinion in the light of events at Brentford magistrates court on the day of Peter Austin's death.

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 - which was awarded a contract for London three years ago - runs a course designed to train its employees to the same standard as prison officers. It covers legal issues, prisoner management, security, supervision and first aid.

What emerged from the inquest was the gulf between theory and practice, particularly in the area of suicide awareness and prevention. The seven custody staff on duty at Brentford would have received three hours of training on how to re- cognise potentially suicidal behaviour and provide support where needed.

All testified that Mr Austin exhibited signs of being disturbed. At Chiswick police station, he had tried to cut his wrists with a plastic fork and was seen three times by a police surgeon. The documents that accompanied him to court stated that he was mentally ill and a persistent drug user. Shortly after arriving, he launched an unprovoked attack on a Securicor guard, Michaela Tottey. He also requested medication and said he had been "hearing voices".

He was not placed under special watch, even after smearing excrement around his cell. Dr Stuart Carne, the police surgeon, said he would have expected Mr Austin not to be left alone after such an incident.

Securicor's staff instruction booklet tells them to seek medical assistance for prisoners who are thought to be ill. Roger Clark, the supervisor at Brentford, did not call a doctor initially because Mr Austin was "not physically ill".

When he was discovered hanging, the guards believed he was feigning, partly because his feet were touching the floor. A conversation about it ensued. The question of calling an ambulance was not discussed.

How much time elapsed remains unclear. Miss Tottey went to have "a peep" at him but said she "wasn't opening that door for anybody after what he had done to me that day".

Deficiencies in training were highlighted by medical witnesses. Dr Iain West, a senior patho-logist, said that in a significant minority of hanging cases, the feet are on the ground.

With about 60 suicides a year by people in custody, the Prison Service places a high priority on the problem. Penal groups say most prisoners in private escort companies' care are on remand or about to begin a sentence - categories acknowledged to be the highest suicide risks.

Securicor says it will now conduct its own inquiry into the Austin death. Until the suspension of their certificates yesterday, the officers had been working in similar jobs and have not received extra training. Securicor said it had not considered suspending them.