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Last Updated: Friday, 19 September, 2003, 17:38 GMT 18:38 UK
Prison criticised over cell death
Durham Prison
More than 100 women are held at Durham Prison
The UK's only high security jail for women is seriously overcrowded and cannot cope with the number of inmates, an inquest has heard.

The regime at Durham Prison was severely criticised, as a jury returned an open verdict into the death of one of four inmates who died in a nine-month period.

A jury at Durham Magistrates Court returned an open verdict on the fifth day of an inquest into the death of 32-year-old Jamaican, Beverley Fowler.

She was found hanging in her cell in October 2002 - two days before she was due to be deported after completing a sentence for smuggling class A drugs into Britain.

Although she was excited about seeing her three children again, the jury heard she was worried about returning to Kingston because of the violent criminals she believed would be looking for her.

But the pressure group Inquest spoke out about conditions at the prison's female unit, which houses more than 100 inmates.

The group claimed there were too many prisoners for the staff to monitor closely.

Special watch

Gilly Mundy, a case worker with Inquest, said in a statement: "Beverley was one of four who had taken her life at Durham Prison from August 2002 to May 2003.

"Prior to that, there had been no deaths there for 12-years.

"This spate of deaths has coincided with a 150% increase in the female population at HMP Durham in 12-months."

He said the increase was made worse by the fact about 25% of the inmates were on special watch, because of fears they might harm themselves.

Mr Mundy said in 2002 there were nine deaths throughout the country of female prisoners suspected of killing themselves, while this year there had already been 11.

A spokeswoman for the prison said: "The prison service has employed an expert solely to study suicide in the female estate in order to lower future risk.

Illegal drugs

"We are overhauling the way the female population is managed so we can tailor prisoners` movements more appropriately to the needs of the women concerned.

"We do accept that suicides have risen over the past few years, and we are in the middle of a three-year strategy to reduce self-harm."

In a pre-trial interview, Ms Fowler told a psychiatrist her partner had been murdered by a gangster who forced her to travel to the UK with a stash of illegal drugs - the first time she had left the country.

The jury took three hours to return its majority verdict after hearing evidence from prison officers, fellow inmates, detectives and Ms Fowler's half-sister, Selma Campbell, who is seeking asylum in London.

They were told Ms Fowler, known as Catherine Pitt in her homeland, was one of about 15 drug mules from Jamaica held at Durham Prison.

Coroner Andrew Tweddle, told the jury they should consider returning an open verdict if they were not certain beyond reasonable doubt that she intended to kill herself, and had not hoped she would be saved.

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