Prisoner 'was left hanging in cell'

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The Independent Online
A prisoner who died in a courthouse cell was left hanging from a light fitting for nearly 10 minutes by Securicor staff who believed that he was faking a suicide attempt, an inquest was told yesterday.

When guards finally checked Peter Austin's condition, he was pronounced in good health and magistrates decided that a planned bail hearing should take place outside his cell, Hammersmith Coroner's Court in west London was told.

Lawyers began arguing the case as he lay motionless on the floor inside, with the guards still convinced that he was feigning unconsciousness.

Mr Austin, 30, is the first person to have died in custody while in the care of Securicor, the private security firm, which has a Home Office contract to escort prisoners between courts and the jails in the capital. He had been arrested on 28 January this year on suspicion of burglary and taken to Chiswick police station, where he was held overnight. While in custody, he tried to cut his wrists and was examined by a police surgeon who prescribed a drug used to treat schizophrenia.

The following day, Mr Austin was taken to Brentford Magistrates Court to apply for bail and put in a cell below the courts.

Mr Austin's barrister, Stuart Armstrong, said he went to visit him after learning that he had smeared excrement around his cell. "He said to me that he wanted to go home, that he wanted his medication and that he wanted to see a doctor," he said. "He was clearly distressed and bewildered. He looked and sounded like an unhappy child."

About half an hour later, Mr Armstrong looked into the cell and saw Mr Austin hanging from the ceiling by his T-shirt. He called the guards, one of whom said: "It's OK, his feet are on the ground; he's faking it."

Mr Armstrong went on: "The guards told me that his face would be a different colour if he was trying to hang himself, and that she thought she had seen him move. I told her that although I was probably less experienced than her, I thought he looked bloody convincing."

Mr Armstrong called the other jailers, who said they could do nothing because their supervisor, Roger Clarke, was upstairs. When Mr Clarke arrived, he looked into the cell and allegedly said: "Cheeky bugger, he just winked at me." After examining Mr Austin, he said: "He's a good actor, he was pretending to be unconscious."

A bail hearing was convened outside the cell, during which Mr Austin, who was lying on the floor, did not respond to questions. About half an hour later, he was found to be dead.

The hearing continues today.