Jail deaths raise concern

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The Prison Ombudsman, Sir Peter Woodhead, yesterday highlighted a gap in his powers which prevents him from investigating the most serious of Prison Service responsibilities - the avoidance of suicides or other unnatural deaths. After discussions with Inquest, the group that investigates deaths in custody, Sir Peter is to raise the issue at a meeting next week with the Home Office minister Joyce Quin. His current powers limit him to investigating complaints from prisoners - once a prisoner is dead he cannot look at the case and cannot take complaints from the inmate's family. Sir Peter said: "I have got considerable concerns about what goes on and about the frustrations of families. There are internal prison investigations but these are never disclosed."

Sir Peter said he felt the Prison Service generally did everything possible to safeguard prisoners, often those with mental health problems, who were at high risk of attempting suicide. But families faced the frustration of never finding out what had happened. Inquests were geared to establishing the medical reason for death, he said, adding: "It is possible that I am well-place to conduct independent investigations." Deborah Coles, co- director of Inquest, said: "There should be no more serious issue for the Prison Service than the unnatural death of someone while in their care."