Tragedy of the woman allowed to die in her cell

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Valerie Hayes had many talents. She was an accomplished artist, played the guitar and sang wonderfully. A recording of her performing "I Was Born Under a Wandering Star" is still cherished by her daughter, Claire.

But there was no mistaking her growing despair as she faced up to life behind bars while struggling with drug addiction and profound mental illness. A few weeks ago, she cut her arms at Styal women's prison in Cheshire, before making an unsuccessful attempt to hang herself. Five days after the attempted hanging, Mrs Hayes was dead. She was found hanged in a cell at the prison's special care unit last Wednesday, the second woman to die in such circumstances in nine days.

It was a tragedy foretold by the prison's own governor, Steve Hall, whose tenure at Styal began soon after the last of six self-inflicted deaths within one year. He told a BBC documentary team three months ago that his prison was a repository for individuals failed by Britain's mental health system. Mr Hall described his staff's struggle to care for the women rejected by mental health establishments which lacked the resources to accommodate them. "There will be another death here," Mr Hall predicted. "Often in a morning, we're reflecting on the fact that somebody nearly died last night." During the six months of filming, 150 incidents of self-harm or attempted suicide were recorded at Styal.

Mrs Hayes, 42, was a classic example of the prisoner Mr Hall described. Brought up in nearby Warrington, she was drawn into drugs by a boyfriend years ago. She was so addicted that her two children were were taken from her, at the ages of 11 and three. Drug addiction and the emotional toll of never again seeing her son resulted in her spending around a decade in and out of the Hollins Park mental hospital in Warrington.

Mrs Hayes had served at least one prison sentence for petty criminality before attempting to set fire to photographs of her family one night in 2004. Her friends claim she tried to put the fire out and called the fire brigade when the flames got out of control. But she received a 27-month sentence for arson in October 2004.

"She didn't know what she was doing," said her daughter, Claire, 21. She said her mother had been released from prison to the Alder Lodge Hospital in Warrington, after serving half of her sentence. Staff complained she was being abusive and she was returned to Styal.

The problems Mrs Hayes displayed are common among women in prison, prompting demands from welfare organisations for an inquiry into a sentencing regime that has seen the female prison population increase from 2,600 to about 4,600 since 1997. Two-thirds of the female prison population show symptoms of at least one neurotic disorder and/or have a drug problem, while 37 per cent of female prisoners say they have attempted suicide at least once.

New Hall Prison in Wakefield, west Yorkshire, has the worst recent record for self-inflicted deaths, with 11 since 2002. The latest was Kelly Hutchinson, 22, serving five months for theft. She was found hanging in her cell on 1 May, days after a jury at the inquest into Marie Walsh, another New Hall prisoner, returned a verdict highly critical of the care provided to women at risk. The day before Mrs Hayes died, Styal was also censured by the Prisons' Inspectorate in a report which drew attention to the same problems which seem to have contributed to Mrs Hayes' death.

Deborah Coles, director of the welfare charity Inquest, which is campaigning for a public inquiry into the numbers of women in prison, said deaths would continue until Britain stopped imprisoning women who are mentally ill. "There is a duty incumbent on this Government to stop the deaths happening," she said. "Who is ultimately held to account when a woman dies? At the moment, no one."

Two thirds of prisoners reconvicted within two years

By Nigel Morris

More people are locked up in English and Welsh jails than live in Shrewsbury, Redditch or Harrogate. The jail population stands at 77,254 - 4,435 of whom are women - the highest incarceration rate in western Europe.

The prisoners are crammed into accommodation that should be holding about 70,000 if inmates were to be guaranteed decent conditions. Instead there is a sense of perpetual crisis within the system, with many offenders shuttled around the country and sharing cells designed for a single prisoner.

Three-quarters of the inmates have taken illegal drugs in the year before imprisonment, more than 60 per cent drank dangerous amounts of alcohol and a very high number suffer mental health disorders. But with prison staff struggling to cope with the endless stream of new arrivals, it is no surprise that there is little time to tackle the problems that contributed to their offending.

Valerie Hayes was the 28th inmate (and second woman) to commit suicide this year and if the current rate is maintained the toll for the year will rise above 80.

The paradox is that the prison population has leapt by 25,000 over the past decade, a period in which overall crime rates have fallen sharply. The obvious explanation is that more people are being jailed for relatively minor offences; women shoplifters are twice as likely to be locked up as they were 15 years ago. But the courts cannot take the sole blame for an increasingly draconian approach to sentencing as they work within a political climate created by successive Tory and Labour governments talking tough on crime and promising to build more prisons to hold yet more prisoners.

There is little evidence that the rise in custodial sentences benefits society. Two thirds of prisoners are reconvicted within two years of release, compared with half in 1992.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "A mix of political rhetoric, scaremongering by the popular press and harsher sentencing practice ... has pushed our overcrowded prisons into operating as welfare warehouses, or social dustbins, for addicts in need of treatment, the mentally ill and a tide of petty criminals failed by other public services."