A JURY in the inquest into the death of a Haverigg Prison inmate found hanged in his cell has concluded staff did not take adequate steps to keep him safe in custody.
Keith Abbott, a 32-year-old with a history of mental health problems, was found dead on the morning of July 15 in 2016 in single occupancy cell while serving a four-year sentence at Cumbria’s only jail.
A pathologist concluded he died due to hanging, and also found he was subjected to a serious sexual assault in the hour before his death.
At the end of a 10-day inquest in Carlisle, a jury which heard evidence from around 60 witnesses concluded Liverpool-born Mr Abbott died at around 7pm on July 14 – shortly after prisoners were locked down for the night.
Mr Abbott’s death was not discovered until around 9am the following morning. This was after three routine visual roll checks through cell door observation hatches should have been undertaken by prison officers to establish the wellbeing of inmates.
During evidence, jurors heard one former senior staff member describe staffing levels as “severe”, and that workers were “becoming burnt out”. As a result, searches for the banned synthetic substance spice that the prison was battling to contain had been “scaled back”.
A toxicologist found no evidence to indicate Mr Abbott had used or was administered with spice.
Police made a number of arrests in the wake of Mr Abbott’s death. But after an investigation into reports of physical and sexual assaults within the prison no charges were brought. Several prisoners had insisted they weren’t involved in any sexual assault on Mr Abbott, nor involved in his death.
After hearing all evidence an 11-strong jury of six women and five men concluded the sexual assault was a “more than minimal, trivial or negligible cause” of his death.
Asked whether adequate steps were taken by staff at HMP Haverigg to keep Mr Abbott safe, the jury’s foreman announced its unanimous conclusion: “No.”
Factors which probably contributed to his death, jurors found, included admitted roll check failings, no medication for mental health at the prison, internal communication issues, a lack of CCTV and “insufficient staff levels”.
The inquest heard the jail’s operational capacity had been slashed from 644 to 260 following Mr Abbott’s death, that prisoners’ billets on what was a former RAF base – including his – had since been closed down, senior coroner Kally Cheema noting that “substantial changes” had been made.
Speaking through a solicitor after the hearing, Mr Abbott’s partner, Linda Bailey, said: “I am pleased with the conclusion that jury have reached, and the inquest has gone a long way in answering the many questions I had unanswered following Keith’s death.
“The prison was clearly an unsafe environment, and it is extremely sad that it has taken Keith’s death to recognise that and close the billets down.”