'Serious failures' blamed for Huntley suicide bid

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The Independent Online

Ian Huntley's attempted suicide was blamed by the Home Office yesterday on a catalogue of "serious systems failures" at the high-security jail where he is being held.

The official report into his overdose criticised staffing systems and the handling of prescription drugs at Woodhill prison in Buckinghamshire.

It also accused the jail of being more concerned with protecting Mr Huntley - who is accused of murdering Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, two Cambridgeshire schoolgirls - from other inmates than from self-harm. Paul Goggins, a Home Office minister, said the incident on 9 June had exposed a "completely unacceptable situation" at the prison. Mr Huntley was the subject of a 15-minute suicide watch at Woodhill when he was found suffering a fit on the floor of his cell. He is thought to have swallowed as many as 29 anti-depressant tablets, which he had hoarded in teabags. He was taken to Milton Keynes General Hospital's intensive care unit and was returned to jail the following day.

In a written statement to MPs summarising the Prison Service report, Mr Goggins said there had been "deficiencies in searching practices" at the prison. Managers "did not fully recognise the full risks" of deploying officers to supervise Mr Huntley for "long shifts without relief", he added. Day-to-day management of the prisoner had fallen to one senior manager who also had other duties, which "was not appropriate".

The report's recommendations included a review of the jail's cell search strategy and of security. It said probationary officers should not supervise the inmate, with responsibility for their care given to one officer, and called for an overhaul of medical and drug prescribing systems.

Mr Goggins told MPs: "The systems for managing Ian Huntley concentrated more on protecting him from other prisoners than on the risk of self-harm. The Prison Service should have given equal importance to both risks." He said the recommendations had been implemented on Monday and their effectiveness would be reviewed each week.

Mr Goggins added: "I have made it clear to the director general [of the Prison Service] that the conclusions of the report describe a completely unacceptable situation, that the lessons to be learnt must be applied immediately and that the highest standards of supervision must be sustained."

James Paice, a Conservative home affairs spokesman, said: "This proves what we have long suspected, that security in our prisons system is a complete shambles."

Mark Leech, editor of the Prisons Handbook, called for the resignation of Peter Atherton, the Prison Service's head of high-security prisons in England and Wales over the "disastrous blunders".

A Prison Service spokesman said that to look for a scapegoat would be wrong. He said: "The report and the minister's statement make it clear that the failings were corporate failings. "The investigation is not a witch-hunt. It was intended to quickly identify and rectify failings surrounding the care of the prisoner. It has done this."