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Investigators face conflicting cell death claims

Union raises questions over whether ministers knew of accused murderer' s prison routine as attention centres on suicide risk
Investigations into how Frederick West was able to hang himself while under a regime of close supervision are likely to hear conflicting evidence over the times prison officers were scheduled to check his cell.

Two investigations into the apparent suicide of West - one by the West Midlands Police and another by the authorities at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham - learned yesterday that there is already conflicting claims over the supervision orders accorded to West. Although prison officers coming off their shift yesterday defended their role and claimed that West was "checked every 15 minutes", John Bartell, general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, insisted that a decision had been taken to lift a "special watch" on West.

This was confirmed last night by the director general of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis, who said West was not subject to 15-minute checks. Mr Lewis also said that West had not been assessed as being a suicide risk and that precautions such as classification were, therefore, not in place.

Mr Bartell said West was on the 15-minute check routine when he first arrived at Winson Green. However, he claimed this was later relaxed. He said: "Because he assimilated quite quickly into the prison routine, local managers, presumably with permission from head office, removed these special watch facilities and Frederick West actually associated with other prisoners in his same category on a number of occasions.

"That decision, I presume, would have been authorised by head office." Speaking on BBC Radio, Mr Bartell said he would be "shocked" if the decision had been made solely at local level. He added: "It must have gone to the director of operations at the Prison Service. One would assume with such a high-profile prisoner that at least the minister would have been informed."

However, Winson Green's principal prison officer, Terry O'Dwyer, said everything possible was done to protect West.

He insisted West was checked at 15-minute intervals, but said: "If someone is determined to commit suicide, as hard as we try, they will."

With Mr Lewis claiming there had been no initial "at risk" categorisation of West, and that there had been no ministerial interference, the inquiries now have contradictory statements that will require attention.

Staff at the prison said West must have hanged himself immediately after a routine check was made. Mr O'Dwyer said an officer, using a cell viewing panel, would have seen West was all right just minutes before he committed suicide. West was discovered at12.55pm and was certified dead at 1.22pm.

On New Year's Day, the Independent, speaking to a Prison Service source, understood that West was categorised as a "vulnerable" inmate and had been under 30 minute checks.

Before Mr Lewis's statements, the Home Office said no details could be released, but added: "There are no rules governing the supervision of those at risk." On the precise categorisation of West and whether he was deemed "vulnerable", it refused to comment.

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