Prisons: A mother's pain that was too much to bear

Pauline Campbell, a tireless campaigner, was found dead at her daughter's grave last week
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The Independent Online

Pauline Campbell's home became an empty one when her daughter, her only child, died in a prison cell, so she filled it with the products of her campaign to ensure that others would not suffer in the same way.

What a sight that small terraced house was. An avalanche of letters, cuttings, banners and campaign material, piled up near the doormat, more in the kitchen, the living room. "Sorry about the mess. I used to be so tidy," she told me when I first walked in and skated on the paper pile; I had come, as a journalist, to talk about her daughter's death.

Those who worked with her say Pauline was the most dedicated campaigner of recent years for women in prisons. But she was a mother, too, and there was an aching sadness about her house in Malpas, Cheshire, her lonely life there and her pilgrimages to coroners' courts and prison gates.

Last week, Pauline, 60, made her final journey – to her daughter's grave at the local cemetery where, at 6.15am last Thursday, her own body was discovered.

Her daughter was Sarah. She had talent, planned to take a fine art degree, and played on the fringes of the county tennis team. But there was abuse from a distant relative as a child, low self-esteem and, at 15, she was prescribed anti-depressants. She moved to London, and turned to heroin. A psychiatrist who saw her 40 times after her return to Malpas said she was "one of the most unhappy people I have ever met".

Aged 18, desperate for a fix, Sarah and a friend bundled Amrit Bhandari, 72, into a doorway in Chester and stole his wallet. He suffered a heart attack and died, and Sarah was given three years for manslaughter. A doctor and nurse both recommended she be watched as a suicide risk, but the deputy governor at Styal women's prison overruled this. Within 24 hours or so Sarah was dead – just before her 19th birthday. She had taken 120 anti-depressants.

Only at Sarah's inquest – which took three years and seven days to reach court – did the full story come out. Her seven attempts to hang herself in earlier periods at Styal; the staff's decision to shut the door on her after she had overdosed; their failure to agree who should call an ambulance.

Pauline's long wait for her own day in court was punctuated by more deaths: 41 women have died in prison, apparent suicides, since Sarah's in early 2003 – five within 12 months of Sarah, at Styal. Pauline worked to highlight every one. She blocked vans arriving with new inmates by lying on the ground. She was arrested 15 times for public order offences. And, each year, on the anniversary of her daughter's death, there would be a service outside Styal's gates.

In 2005, Pauline won the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize for her work. But few knew how close she was to despair. Perhaps it finally dawned on Pauline Campbell, amid the deafening quiet of the place she called home, that the loss of a child never leaves a mother.