Letter: Death in cell: officials had been warned

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Sir: It gives me no satisfaction to write, following the inquest into the tragic and unnecessary death in his cell at Brentford magistrates' court of Peter Austin on 29 January, to say that I had warned the Prison Service of concerns about the care of prisoners while in the custody of Securicor Custodial Services ("Securicor staff suspended for death in their care", 26 June).

In June 1994, I was among 40 people appointed to a panel of lay observers to courts in the London area under s.81(b) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. It quickly became apparent that lay observers were to be no more than Home Office stooges, with no recognition of their statutory role. After seeking to influence change from within, but without success, I resigned in disgust in March 1996. I regretted doing so as the work of lay observers is potentially extremely important, but I left in the knowledge that some truly excellent fellow members remained on the panel - although many of the original 40 had also resigned by that time, some for similar reasons.

The statutory duty imposed on lay observers is to "inspect the conditions in which prisoners are transported or held in pursuance of the regulations and to make recommendations to the Secretary of State". Almost from the outset, as lay observers we were limited in what we were permitted to comment or report on; matters relating to Securicor staff or the physical conditions in which prisoners were held, we were told, were beyond our remit, thereby rendering us virtually impotent. The two annual reports produced by the panel, written by the chairman, failed to draw attention to important concerns expressed by panel members.

It appeared Home Office officials worked in fear of incurring the displeasure of the Home Secretary. His wrath knew no bounds, and they did not want to report or draw attention to matters that might rouse him. It was maintained that comments about Securicor staff were "contractual", and therefore "commercially confidential" and solely between the Home Office and Securicor.

Many of the custody areas in the courts were inadequate, frequently squalid and dirty and lacking in basic facilities. The fact that the Lord Chancellor's Department needed to find a considerable sum to bring them up to a reasonable standard was not something the panel's monitor, a Home Office official, wished to report.

Before and after my resignation I had meetings with and wrote to Prison Service officials about my concerns. So far as I know my expressions of concern have not been acted on.

The present Home Secretary would be well advised to call for the papers and review the operation of the monitoring and lay observer arrangements for the prisoner escort contracts. The London scheme was complacent, weak and flawed and this situation is probably reported elsewhere in the country. It is in need of thorough overhaul. It is our duty to ensure that the lessons are learnt from Mr Austin's death.


London SW4