‘Prisoner hanged himself after being denied church visit’

54-year-old was found hanged in his cell, inquest is told, as officer reveals ‘overwhelming’ job at Caledonian Road jail

Friday, 24th March 2017 — By Joe Cooper

Pentonville Prison G Wing_0

HMP Pentonville inmate John Williams was known to be impulsive and talked about hanging himself

A SENIOR prison officer has described the “overwhelming” nature of working at Pentonville as an inquest heard how an inmate hanged himself after being prevented from going to church.

St Pancras Coroner’s was told how John Williams was found hanged in his cell in June last year. Mr Williams, a Catholic, was found tied to his cell bar windows after having privileges taken away and being refused permission to go to church. He had trashed his cell and was verbally abusive to staff.

The 54-year-old, who had been recalled to prison for threatening council officers, had attempted suicide in the Caledonian Road prison a year earlier. He had a history of depression, had been prescribed anti-depressants and was also under an Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) document, which ensures greater care for prisoners at risk of self-harm or suicide.

The senior female prison officer, who had been dealing with Mr Williams in the lead-up to his death, told the inquest about the challenges of working in Pentonville. She had been at the prison for around a year at the time of the death, after transferring from HMP Holloway.

“It was a really difficult transition,” she said.

“Staff morale was low, we had very little staff. The prison regime at the time meant the majority were behind their doors all day – there were not enough staff to facilitate exercise and association.”

A prison officer said attacks on staff by inmates at Pentonville were ‘quite frequent’

Asked by a member of the jury if she felt equipped to be a senior prison officer, she said: “I did think I was equipped. I just found the transition very challenging.”

She said that G-Wing, where she worked, housed more than 380 men, which was more than the entire population of HMP Downview, a women’s prison in Surrey that is now closed – yet it had fewer prison officers. There were just 13 prison officers on G-Wing at the time.

“These are emotionally needy men, men that can be manipulative,” she said. “I was often face-to-face with big, strapping men – nose-to-nose with aggressive men – and I had to stand my ground. It was very difficult.”

She also said attacks on staff by prisoners were “quite frequent”.

Towards the end of last year, more than 60 prison officers went on strike over lack of staffing which they said put officers, and prisoners themselves, in danger.

There was an alleged murder in the prison, a series of knife attacks and a breakout, as well as five suicides in less than two years.

Mr Williams, who had lived in Barking, was considered a trusted prisoner and was given a job as a painter, but he was also known to be impulsive and talked about hanging himself.

He and his cellmate had been watching the Glastonbury Festival on their TV on Saturday, June 25. The man said Mr Williams was frustrated that he had not been paid for his painting work and so had been unable to buy cigarettes.

The next morning he trashed his cell, smashing the observation panel and pouring paint out of it. He was told he was not allowed to go to church, which he did every Sunday with his cellmate. He was found hanged at 10am.

The hearing continues.

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