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HMP Elmley ‘failed’ Goudhurst dad whose body was found hanged in cell at Kent prison

PUBLISHED: 16:04 22 February 2017 | UPDATED: 16:04 22 February 2017

Levi Smith

Levi Smith

Archant

The family of Levi Smith have criticised the jail following the conclusion of an inquest in Maidstone

A Kent prison “failed” a Goudhurst dad whose body was found hanged in a cell, his family have claimed.

The body of Levi Smith, 41, of John Stacey Heights, was discovered on November 12, 2014 in a cell at HMP Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey.

At the end of a 14 day inquest at The Archbishop’s Palace in Maidstone, attended throughout by the deceased’s family, a jury returned a detailed narrative conclusion, confirming that the failure of a governor and his staff to segregate a vulnerable prisoner under Rule 45 of the Prison Rules possibly contributed to Mr Smith’s death.

The jury also identified a raft of other failures and short-comings of the prison but were not required by the assistant coroner to determine whether these also contributed to the death.

The jury concluded that the death was ‘accidental’ in that Mr Smith’s deliberate act was a “cry for help” which resulted in an unintended outcome.

An admitted failure by the night Operational Support Grade staff member (OSG) to conduct a required hourly check shortly before 5.30am coincided with what appeared to be Mr Smith’s last movements.

The jury concluded that the prisoner died between 5.35am and 5.45am but were not asked to consider whether the missed check contributed to the death.

At the time of his death, Mr Smith had only four weeks of his sentence to serve before his release.

From October 22, 2014, after being moved to a different house block within the prison, Mr Smith became very concerned about death threats from members of a rival traveller family housed with him.

His genuine fear manifested itself in a series of panic attacks, some of which resulted in outside hospital treatment.

Over the next two and a half weeks Mr Smith made numerous attempts to draw the prison’s attention to the risk he faced.

He also began to commit a number of what were described in evidence as “trivial” offences to engineer his move to the segregation unit out of harm’s way.

Both national prison policies and local policies in force at HMP Elmley recognised that the behaviour displayed by Mr Smith was characteristic of someone at risk of harm from other prisoners.

The jury was also told that in what was ultimately his final call to his mother, Charlotte, Mr Smith told her his life was in danger and he was under threat, after which she urged staff to take action.

Despite this, at no stage did the prison implement its own Violence Reduction Strategy which would have enabled an investigation into the prisoner’s reports of threats and a support plan to be put in place which ought to have included consideration of where he could be safely housed.

During the inquest the jury also heard evidence about Rule 45 (of the Prison Rules 1999) which allows the prison to remove prisoners from association if it is in the interests of good order or discipline or where it is in the prisoner’s “own interests”.

However, at no stage was Rule 45 status granted to Mr Smith.

On November 11, 2014, Mr Smith was taken to the healthcare unit suffering from a severe anxiety attack and in very real distress, declaring that he would “string himself up” if he was relocated to the house block the next day.

He informed officers he had been told by ‘a governor’ that he would.

An ACCT (Action, Care, Communication and Teamwork) document was opened, noting the risk of suicide and making provision for hourly checks on Mr Smith overnight.

Officers attempted to assure him that he would not be returned to the house block before a review the following morning as part of the ACCT process.

He was discovered suspended in his cell shortly after 6.45 am.

The prisoner’s family was represented at the inquest by Sean Horstead of Garden Court Chambers, instructed by Beth Handley of Hickman and Rose solicitors.

Mr Smith’s oldest sister Racheal Smith said: “We believe the prison failed Levi, they failed to look after him as they should have done.

“If they had looked after him and took my mum’s phone call more seriously than they did do, I believe my brother would still be alive today,”

Mr Smith’s daughter, Rachel, said: “We do miss him dearly and not a moment goes by that we don’t think of him. We miss him more than words can say.”

His father, Levi Smith Snr, added: “Wherever I went, my son went with me, he was like my shadow, when Levi went a part of me went with him.”

Solicitor Ms Handley said afterwards: “The jury concluded that the failure to place Levi on Rule 45 segregation possibly contributed to Levi taking his own life.

“By failing to guarantee his removal from association with those who had threatened him the prison needlessly created unbearable uncertainty about his safety.

“This was yet another unnecessary tragedy from which his family will struggle to recover.”

Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, a charity that provides advice to the bereaved, added: “What happened to Levi is another example of a prison system in crisis.

“The shocking fact that there has been four further self-inflicted deaths in the same prison speaks for itself and underlines the urgency for action and accountability.

“There is a disconnect between policies and practice where repeated inquest findings and recommendations are simply not followed.”

Bosses at the jail told us recommendations made after an investigation by the Prisons & Probation Ombudsman had been accepted, and action taken, including improvements to night resources and the ACCT procedure.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson added: “This is a tragic case and our thoughts are with Levi Smith’s family and friends.

“The safety and welfare of people within our custody is our top priority and our policy is under constant review, but we recognise that more could have been done to support Mr Smith.

“HMP Elmley have already put in place a number of measures to better support the safety of offenders in custody and we will now carefully consider the findings of the inquest.”

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