'Suicide' inquiry will start in days, says ombudsman

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The Independent Online

The inquiry into Harold Shipman's apparent suicide, an embarrassing blow to continuing efforts by the Prison Service to cut the death toll behind bars, will begin within days. It will be conducted by Stephen Shaw, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, who promised yesterday to make his conclusions public.

He echoed the feeling within the Prison Service that little could have been done to prevent Shipman, 57, an accomplished liar who had fooled medical colleagues for decades, from taking his life. Wakefield Prison's most notorious inmate had developed a reputation for arrogance and aloofness, and had lost some privileges as a result, but there was no inkling that he could be suicidal.

As with most Category A prisoners, his single cell was checked hourly by officers, who confirmed that he was alive and well at 5am. Sixty minutes later, he was found hanging from bedsheets tied around the bars.

Mr Shaw said yesterday: "You have 70,000 people in prison. You do not have a situation, nor would you seek a situation, where they are all under 24-hour surveillance. That isn't possible, it isn't desirable, it isn't humane. What I will need to investigate is whether there were any warning signs at Wakefield in the case of Shipman."

His remit will include making recommendations on the balance between watching potentially vulnerable prisoners and affording them some privacy. With a prisoner committing suicide every four days in England and Wales, Mr Shaw faces a momentous challenge. Ninety-four inmates, including 14 women, committed suicide last year, one below the all-time high of 2002.

Prison reformers blame the death rate on overcrowding and understaffing among the 74,000 inmates and said a fall in the suicide rate will only follow a change in penal policy.

A variety of initiatives for combating the upward trend have been launched by the Prison Service. They include a "listening service" run by prisoners for potentially suicidal cellmates in conjunction with the Samaritans, the appointment and training of suicide prevention co-ordinators in prisons and the development of "safer" cells without sharp corners or ligature points.

In acute cases, inmates can be placed under permanent surveillance. But Shipman did not fit into that category. He was on a standard security watch and even appeared to be preparing a fresh appealagainst his conviction.