Relatives sue after 'at risk' mother killed herself in jail

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The Independent Online
STEPHEN WARD

Legal Affairs Correspondent

Relatives of a young single mother who hanged herself in jail the day after slashing her wrists are suing the Home Office for failing to protect her life.

Legal aid has been granted to the mother and two small sons of Michelle Pearson, 23, who had been admitted to a prison with an official form saying she was "at risk" of committing suicide, and should be watched hourly.

Yet according to evidence given earlier this year at the inquest into her death, the warning was never passed on to prison staff in charge of her.

She was put on an ordinary wing of New Hall jail at Wakefield, West Yorkshire, and found the next morning hanging from a shower curtain.

The inquest jury insisted on returning a verdict of "misadventure with an element of neglect". Procedures at the prison were changed after an internal inquiry into the death last year.

Ms Pearson, from Castleford, was two months into a nine-month sentence for assault, dangerous driving and driving while disqualified, in Askham Grange open prison near York, her solicitor, Ruth Bundey, said. "She was allowed home one weekend in July to see her two sons, Ben, five, and Matthew, two."

A fellow inmate told the inquest that Ms Pearson had returned to the open prison after that visit, pleased to have been home but sad to be back inside. She had brought drink and pills with her from home, and by the end of the evening was "unsteady, wobbly, but happy".

"In the early hours of the Monday morning she was found in a bathroom with her wrists slashed. She was taken to hospital, treated, and put back in her cell. During the night she tried to rip off her bandages and bite her wrist before falling asleep."

The governor of Askham Grange decided she needed to be in a prison with a hospital wing and psychologists, so she was moved to New Hall.

A prison officer from the open prison handed her over to a nurse on duty, who had no training on suicide prevention. The nurse read the "at risk" form, but after being told by Ms Pearson that the bandaged wrist "was nothing", sent her to a normal wing.

Three prison officers on the wing had no idea there was any "at risk" form. Throughout the night, no one looked through the flap on the cell door to speak to or check on the prisoner. She was locked up at 8.30pm, and found dead the next morning, with letters to her family and friends beside her body.

One, to her mother, Marlene Pearson, said: "It's sending me insane in here and I can't get to see you or the kids. I really want to die. Please make them take me back to Askam."

Marlene Pearson said the children are still struggling to come to terms with the death: "The boys have lost their mum, and while money can't bring her back, it would help see them right. They understand now that she is never coming back, but we still have to keep reassuring them that she has not gone away because they were naughty, or because she didn't love them.

"It is the most difficult thing in the world for two little boys to understand."

In a statement yesterday, the Prison Service said: "Michelle Pearson's tragic death was thoroughly investigated at the time by the governor of New Hall, and procedures have been strengthened."

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