Row grows over shackles on prisoners

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The Independent Online
Penal reformers were promised five months ago by the Prison Service that the practice of shackling sick prisoners to hospital beds had been ended.

An inquiry is under way into why a dying cancer patient was chained to his bed in a hospice despite pleas from his mother and doctors. Geoffrey Thomas, 25, who was awaiting trial for burglary, was only released from shackles three hours before he died of stomach cancer.

Yet in August a senior prison service official said inmates would no longer have to suffer such treatment. The Independent has obtained a copy of a letter by Bill Abbott, a prison service security chief, saying new rules were being introduced to end the practice. "There will be provision for the removal of handcuffs or escort chains when a doctor requests it, unless the risk of escape is too great," he wrote.

"But the revised instructions will stipulate that restraints must be applied between the prisoner and an officer and must not be attached to an item of furniture or any fixtures or fittings under any circumstances."

The words "must not" are underlined. Mr Abbott promised that the new procedures would come into effect by the end of August.

Last night the Prison Officers' Association said it was unaware of any change in the rules. A recent POA survey of officers in the north-west found that the practice of cuffing inmates to hospital beds was still regarded as standard procedure.

Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, who received the letter from Mr Abbott, said he felt badly let down.

"We were promised all those months ago, and either the staff are unaware of new guidelines or the prison service is promising us one thing and doing something else." He added: "The prison service's statement of purpose refers to treating all prisoners with humanity. That is clearly inconsistent with a blanket policy of chaining prisoners in hospitals."

The row over chaining seriously ill prisoners to hospital beds emerged a year ago when women cancer victims from Holloway prison, north London, were found to be shackled during treatment.

Following the uproar, a male prisoner wrote to Mr Shaw complaining that he had also been a victim. He was chained to his bed before and after a routine operation in full view of other patients on his ward.

Mr Shaw wrote to the prison service to complain about the "humiliating" treatment, and received a reply from Mr Abbott in August. He was told the new guidelines would be issued by the end of the month.

Bev Lord, vice-chairman of the POA, said officers had received no new instructions. "Staff are extremely confused about their position and very worried that they will be blamed if anything goes wrong," she said. The prison service, which points out that even seriously ill prisoners have tried to escape, was last night unable to confirm whether new guidelines were being prepared.

It said: "It would be standard procedure for prisoners on an outside escort to be cuffed to a member of staff rather than to furniture." Mr Thomas was chained to his bed in the Marie Curie cancer hospice, Penarth, despite requests from doctors for him to be unshackled. He died earlier this month.

His mother, Marina Davies, said: "He should have been allowed to die with dignity.

"He couldn't even walk, let alone escape."