Torment in life, death in 'Doncatraz': Shaun Webster was found hanging in the cell of his private prison last week. He was 20

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The Independent Online
A YOUNG man who hanged himself in Britain's newest private jail was left alone in his cell despite being a suicide risk. The lawyer for Shaun Webster, 20, who died in Doncaster prison last week, said he had been on suicide watch while in a state- run prison. But after he was sent to Doncaster, which is run by a controversial US company, no special watch was kept.

'He should never have been left by himself in a cell,' Nicholas Green said. 'There are strong grounds for suing this company for negligence.'

Labour yesterday attacked Home Officer ministers for giving the contract to run the Doncaster jail to Wackenhut Corporation, a American penal corporation which was once condemned by Congress for its surveillance operations against a leading critic of multinational oil firms. Its partner in the pounds 70 million contract to run the jail is the Florida services company, Serco.

Shaun Webster was the first inmate to die in the prison. Jail managers said there was no indication that he was a suicide risk. But Mr Green said his client had been on a suicide watch when at the state-run Moorlands prison.

In a suicide note, Webster bitterly wrote of his grief at being separated from his young son. Mr Green said that the police had a statement from Webster's girlfriend saying that he had been beaten up by other prisoners in Doncaster. A spokeswoman for the Samaritans in Doncaster said that the charity had suspended weekly tours of the jail because it was difficult to get inside.

Prison Service sources said they were convinced that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with Doncaster or its managers. In a parliamentary answer last month, a senior manager said that the Government knew about the Congress verdict but had decided to disregard it because no criminal charges had been made in the courts. Prisoners at Doncaster have nicknamed the institution 'Doncatraz' because, within two months of opening, there have been disturbances and the sacking of a nurse who was discovered to have a criminal record, as well as Shaun Webster's death.

The death of Mr Webster has increased concern about the privatisation of the prison service and the growing interest of American penal firms in the potentially lucrative British market.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, promised last year that 12 of the country's 130 jails would be privatised, even if it was cheaper to leave them in the public sector. Mr Howard said the presence of private companies would act as a 'spur to higher standards and greater cost efficiency'. Critics accused him of handing out licences to make money.

But Wackenhut's attempts to expand its business have been far from easy. Prison officers and reformers were furious when they discovered that the secret contract between the company and the Home Office showed that ministers had agreed to tolerate overcrowding in Doncaster, 77 assaults on staff a year and 148 assaults on prisoners. Only if these limits were exceeded would the company suffer penalties and see its annual profit of pounds 500,000 from Doncaster cut.

Last week the National Association of Probation Officers joined the argument. In a letter to Derek Lewis, the television executive brought in by the then Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke to run the new commercialised prison system, the union said there had been reports of 'staff resignations', 'violence' and 'food running out' at the jail.

Harry Fletcher, the union's assistant general secretary, said that probation officers had not been able to see prisoners who needed to have reports drawn up to present to courts.

One probation officer arrived at the jail at 2pm, but by 5pm the prisoner he was meant to interview for the court could still not be found. A woman who was five months' pregnant had been left waiting for six hours to see her partner.

'Three young men told their officer last week of being bitten by other inmates. The contractors are out of their depth,' Mr Fletcher said yesterday.

Mr Webster's friends have highlighted the way in which this occasionally violent young man had had experienced the worst the British social services system had to offer.

He was adopted as a child, but, after his step-father died when he was 14, he was put into the care of Calderdale district council in Yorkshire, at a time when the authority was under investigation for allegations that there was abuse of children in its children's homes - claims which lead to the suspension of three social workers.

He was later moved to the Aycliffe Centre in Co. Durham for disturbed children, which was alleged to follow a 'pin down-style tough regime' - claims which led to the replacement of centre's director, Dr Masud Hoghughi , and an inquiry by the Social Services Inspectorate.

Webster got into crime when he left Aycliffe. He was sentenced to two years eight months last year for various offences including stealing a mountain bike, affray and wounding. He was moved to Doncaster 10 days ago from the public Castington jail in Northumbria, where he was serving his sentence, because he had decided to plead guilty at Doncaster Crown Court to further charges of assaulting his wife, Lisa, and hurting his baby son, Michael.

His lawyer, Nicholas Green, said Webster had phoned his current girlfriend, Sharon Ellerman, from Doncaster and told her he had been beaten up by other prisoners. Webster was put in a cell by himself, where he was found hanging by a bedsheet from the window bars.

After his death, the prison was unable to comment on the account of a beating, but said there was no evidence that he was a suicide risk.

Mr Green said: 'That's ridiculous, he had even been talked off a bridge when he lived in Halifax. When he was in the Moorlands jail nearby waiting to be sent to Northumbria, an officer put him on a suicide watch.

'He should never have been left alone'. Lisa Webster said she had been devastated by the suicide and blamed the prison authorities for leaving him by himself after the alleged beating. Friends said there were signs that he was pulling himself together and was talking about facing up to his crimes, by pleading guilty to the outstanding charges against him, and educating himself.

The short, miserable life and grim death of Shaun Webster contrasts with the glossy brochures printed by Wackenhut in the United States.

Alongside pictures of George R Wackenhut, the ex- FBI agent who founded the corporation, they talk of a 'corporate vision' statement, which envisages that by the year 2000 'the Wackenhut Corporation will be recognised throughout the world as a uniquely diversified, superior performing and profitable protective and support services company'.

Among the services on offer are silent witness programmes which encourage 'honest employees' to report 'theft, fraud and drug use anonymously to trained operators on a 24-hour hotline'.

It also provides a comprehensive strike service which provides bedding, baths and catering for workers in a picketed plant.

Stephen Nathan, spokesman for the Prison Reform Trust pressure group, said that if the Government wanted to privatise prisons it had to turn to companies like Wackenhut, because they were the only competitors in the market. 'The public money wasted on profits to their corporate shareholders should be redirected to improving the prisons,' he said.

But senior Prison Service officials said that although Webster's death was a tragedy which would be fully investigated, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the jail. Alun Michael, Labour's home affairs spokesman said the US was 'the most voilent country in the western world and the last place to look for law-and- order policies.'

(Photograph omitted)

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