Prisoners Fightback – Issue 223 October/November 2011
Prisoners who should be in secure mental health hospitals are being held in a prison unit, designed to hold prisoners considered dangerous or disruptive. A prisoner in the unit has been banned from phoning his family following an accusation that he passed information about the regime to The Guardian/Observer. The unit’s operational manager has confirmed that it holds prisoners with mental heath problems and that self-harm levels are high. More prisoners are to be transferred to the unit, where safety levels have been questioned. ERIC ALLISON reports.
The Close Supervision Centre (CSC) at Woodhill prison in Milton Keynes is one of three such units. The CSC system was established in 1998. Described as prisons within prisons, they were set up to house the most dangerous and disruptive prisoners transferred from mainstream prisons. The units are heavily staffed and prisoners intensively supervised. In July, Woodhill’s regime was criticised after Lee Foye, who had cut his ear off three weeks earlier, was able to slice off his other ear with a razor blade, provoking questions over the safety of those held there.
That incident occurred while the prison governor was holding an inquiry into the first episode of self-harm, which happened after Foye, who had already previously injured himself, was allowed into a shower room with a razor blade.
The admission that Woodhill holds prisoners with mental health problems came in a letter from the Operational manage of the CSC, who was responding to a letter from John Bowden, a prisoner in Perth and a regular contributor to FRFI, who raised questions about the regime at Woodhill. The operational manager said some prisoners ‘often present with highly complex needs which can include the presence of a mental disorder, the use of self harm, either as a coping mechanism, or as a maladaptive coping strategy, as well as one or more personality disorders. Some prisoners will present with high levels of self-harming behaviours due to their clinical needs’. The operational manager says confidentiality prevents her confirming the number or type of mental illness within the CSC other than to say that ‘the presence of mental disorder is not uncommon within the unit’.
Prisoner Kevan Thakrar says he is being victimised for blowing the whistle on the treatment of Lee Foye and other inmates. Staff have told him to ‘shut his mouth in future”. He describes the regime at Woodhill as ‘punitive-based mental torture, with staff trying to provoke inmates into reacting violently, thus justifying their presence in the unit’. Kevan’s trial for alleged attempted murder and GBH of three guards in HMP Frankland, is due to start in early October.
Relatives of other prisoners in the CSC at Woodhill have also contacted me and I receive regular disturbing reports about the regime there. Staff violence against prisoners appears to be a regular feature. Lee Foye was said to have been attacked by staff before he first self harmed and in July, the website, Justice for Dano Sonnex reported Dano sufffering ‘another beating’. Dano’s cousin Lisa Hawkins Grant told FRFI:
‘The treatment being inflicted upon these inmates in the CSC units is appalling. The establishment would have everyone believe that they are the most dangerous in the prison system and also describes them as having mental health problems. If this is case, why are they not assessed properly when they first enter the CSC? Instead, the staff provoke the prisoners to react violently so they can retaliate with horrific assaults. They are also subjected to regular strip-searches which could also be termed as sexual assault. What role, if any, does the medical staff take once they see the injuries inflicted upon these inmates? Who can they complain to? Prisoners are charged with assaulting officers yet it takes weeks before anyone deals with their complaints about assaults on them. They are placed in high control cells only being let out in handcuffs and surrounded by officers in riot gear, to make one short phone call per day. Why is the governor allowing this treatment to go on?’
Indeed. Where are the watchdogs in all this? When Lee Foye first cut off his ear, I reported the matter to Thames Valley Police, asking them to investigate. They eventually replied that, as no crime had been reported, they would not investigate. And both the Chief Inspectorate of Prisons and the Prison and Probation Ombudsman’s offices more or less said it was none of their business. I did not bother contacting the Independent Monitoring Board at Woodhill, whose silence, about the regime in the CSC, has been deafening.
Sean Duggan, chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, which researches and analyses mental heath treatment in the criminal justice system, says a CSC is not the environment to keep someone with a severe and enduring mental illness. He says such people should be transferred to NHS secure care, where security and therapy can be combined: ‘The levels of need among [CSC prisoners] should be investigated and action taken to offer them the same care and support as they would receive anywhere else’.