By Christine Jeavans
BBC News Website
Last year 78 men, women and teenagers killed themselves in prison in England and Wales. Half of them were on remand awaiting trial, or sentencing.
Wesley McGoldrick was 24 when he died in Brixton prison
This was the case with Wesley McGoldrick, who was caught shoplifting cheese and milk from a London branch of Sainsbury's on Saturday 16 April 2005.
When he admitted also carrying a knife, the 24-year-old was arrested and charged. As he had no fixed address to be bailed to, after a weekend in a police station he was remanded into custody at Brixton Prison.
By the Tuesday afternoon, less than a day after his arrival at the jail, he was dead, having used bed sheets to hang himself from the bars of his cell window.
He was the 21st person to kill himself in prison in England and Wales that year. Another 57 were to follow.
The Prison Service says it is "completely committed to reducing the number of such tragic incidents" but a combination of circumstances make this a difficult task.
The set of factors that surrounded Wesley's death are "sadly all too common" according to Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, a pressure group which provides support to families in deaths in custody cases.
He was a young male who had recently been remanded into a local prison - features which "are well known to the prison authorities for being over-represented for the number of people dying," she said.
Almost a third of suicides occur within the first week of someone arriving in custody and one in seven is within 48 hours.
Remand prisoners are likely to be placed in a local jail, many of which are overcrowded and may lack the staff or resources to provide intensive support for new inmates.
The first Wesley's mother, Gina Webb, knew of her son's death was when her daughter turned up on her doorstep in the early hours of the morning, flanked by two police officers and sobbing hysterically.
The only information the officers had was that Wesley had been "found dead" - at that point neither Gina nor the police knew he was in jail.
"I had nothing to go on, just that one statement thrown in my face," she said.
"'Where did it happen? How did it happen? Was it an accident? Was he murdered?' It didn't matter what I asked, the answer was 'Sorry, we don't know'."
It was another day before she found out what had happened and a further day before she could identify the body.
'Signs of paranoia'
Once a keen athlete and footballer, Wesley had drifted into homelessness in his early 20s.
He had taken catering work with live-in positions but couldn't settle and the nature of his work meant that if he lost a job he also lost his home. His mother says she begged him to come back to the family home in Ruislip, Middlesex, but he would not.
He was sleeping rough at the time of his arrest and Gina suspects he "wanted to get caught so he would have a roof over his head for the weekend".
PRISON SUICIDES 2005
78 deaths in England and Wales
8 deaths in Scotland (2004/05)
37% on remand awaiting trial
12 were under 21 years of age
Youngest was 16
Four were women
80% were in local prisons
131 people resuscitated after acts of self harm
Source: Howard League
Evidence heard at the inquest into Wesley's death indicated he had mental health issues. Gina believes her son's crime and his last desperate act were "a cry for help".
Officers at Kennington police station, where he was taken on his arrest, were sufficiently concerned about his state of mind to call a doctor who noted "signs of increasing paranoia".
However, the doctor's note was not seen by anyone at Brixton prison, the inquest heard.
Staff there said they judged Wesley's mental state based on conversations with him and the answers he gave to a medical questionnaire.
An investigation recommended changes in procedure at Brixton
Neither gave any cause for alarm, they said, even though he admitted self harming previously.
Under the prison's own procedures this meant he should have been referred for a mental health assessment but this did not happen and he was not placed on suicide watch.
An investigation by the prison ombudsman recommended that mental health assessment training at Brixton was tightened up.
The governor of the prison, John Podmore, said "all prisoners undergo a comprehensive screening process" which "examines all aspects of mental and physical health as well as drug and alcohol issues".
He added: "We are working hard... to provide the highest standards of care for prisoners and continually looking to see how that provision can be improved.
"Tragedies such as the death of Mr McGoldrick cause us to look even harder particularly in the light of reports emanating from these events... our sympathies once again go to the family of Mr McGoldrick."
Fall in suicide rate
Suicide and self harm is recognised as one of the toughest challenges facing the prison service. A study in the Lancet found the male suicide rate in prison was five times that in the general community.
The 2004-05 annual report from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons observed: "The pressure of population, the reactive culture in some prisons and the vulnerability of many of those in prison, will continue to make it difficult for prisons properly to protect those in their care."
But some headway does appear to be being made: the total number of suicides fell last year from 95 in 2004 to 78, a welcome drop after three years of record levels of self-inflicted deaths.
It comes as prisons are beginning to implement a new system known as ACCT - assessment, care in custody and teamwork - which replaces the old suicide watch forms and is designed to be more focussed on the individual.
In addition, a new health screening process has been set up that is designed to detect mental health issues on arrival into custody.
Many jails now have several "safer cells" designed to be as free from potential ligature points as possible.
And the majority of prisons also run Listener schemes in which Samaritans-trained prisoners provide 24-hour confidential support to other inmates.
A Home Office spokesman said "Every death in custody is a terrible tragedy for the families left behind and also has a profound effect on staff and other prisoners.
"The government takes the issue of suicide in prisons very seriously and, in the face of population pressures, suicide prevention efforts have continued with unprecedented energy and commitment."
But Gina Webb is still angry at a system which she believes failed Wesley.
"He was a real person and was my son - they all belong to somebody, they're somebody's husband or somebody's son. But while they're in prison they're nothing, they're just a number," she said.
"What ever reason they're in there for, they're in there. The state has a duty to care for the people they're supposedly looking after and quite frankly they haven't done it."
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This is a really sad story and the part that angered me the most was the comment that these things are 'sadly all too common'. This partly makes me want to become a social worker to help these people, but then I don't want to be part of an organisation that seems to be failing these people. He was homeless and stole from a supermarket. He did not deserve to die. Surely we have a duty to help people like this rather than see them as a statistic.
Andy Wood, Berkhamsted, UK
Our prisons are overcrowded with thousands of people being held on remand. Our government should look to educating people and providing adequate services for the homeless and the mentally ill. A contentious suggestion I know, maybe this would not seem such a pipe dream if we were to pay a couple more pence in the pound in income tax. When will our government accept prison does NOT work.
Terri Knight, Birmingham
No-one could doubt the pain of this young man's family but there is no answer to this problem: unstable people harm themselves but that is no argument against containing them. What if he had remained at large and used his knife?
I was fairly unsympathetic until I read that Wesley had been homeless and emotionally disturbed at the time of his arrest. This is the stage at which people *should* be provided with a safety net; we shouldn't be waiting until they arrive in prison.
Neil Hoskins, Aylesbury, UK
I was a Samaritan prison co-ordinator for Feltham and Wormwood scrubs and a regular prison visitor. Sadly many who comit suicide should be in either the prison health centre or in a mental health institution. For the first few weeks both convicted prsoners and those on remand should not be put in single cells, but with others who may be trained in sucide awareness. Often, particularly with Juveniles and young offenders, all that is needed is for someone to listen to the genuine fears felt by new inmates. I know from personal experience that the majority of prison officers are genuinely concerned by prison suicides but most prisons are understaffed and underfunded.
Clive Cunningham, Libourne, France
What a waste of life! Maybe young adults must be kept under surveillance in jail all the time.Young people are more malleable and under good mentorship they could become good citizens and be productive. My heart goes to his family.
I am sorry but he is no child at 24. Yes he should perhaps have been better supervised but he made life choices for whatever reason - he was a fully grown adult.
Andy Stafford, Reading
While my immense sympathy goes out to the families who suffer due to incidents like this one, I think it is unfair to simply blame the system. It is stretched to the limits because of the amount of criminals that our police are managing to get off the streets. If you want to blame someone, blame the scores of criminals who are not only putting a huge strain on the prison system, but on our country itself. I am aware that most petty criminals are very desperate people, but there many other desperate people who do not turn to crime.
The fact is people really don't understand mental illness, this guy should never have been in prison in the first place,but because of general fear of an individual and the way our society believes in a "not seen, not heard" world, innocent people end up in a catch22 situation.
It makes you wonder why such a vulnerable young man, was placed in custody in the first place for such a minor offence. Regulations should be in place for such people to be placed somewhere where they can seek help rather than locked up like a dangerous criminal.
The system failed him.
Daniel Horton, Portsmouth
People seem to forget that for everyone in prison loads more victims have been left with shattered lives. When or even if they get caught I want to see proper punishment as deterent then re-educated, otherwise your rewarding criminals.
Everyone deserves a second chance right? Thats what I've always stood by. Wesley was a tragic victim of the system and it saddens me to hear that this is how our justice system operates. I am suprised that the courts have not taken into account his circumstances? community service wouldnt that have been a better option?
These sorts of issues will continue to happen unless a meaningful plan is put into place before sending offenders to prison.
I sympathise with this particular case. Unfortunately, my wife and I have been victims of a burglary and serious vandalism over the past 12 months. The police do NOT seem interested in such crime that afflicts honest, hardworking and upstanding citizens of this country. These crimes may be petty in relation to others, but they certainly do affect us and we need the police to take a hard stance on such crimes.
Every unecessary death, particularly a suicide, is tragic. However, the state has the responsibility to provide clean, safe accomodation in prison and to ensure that the detainee is fed, clothed and reasonably comfortable. The state is not a babysitter and if this young man did not present officials with sufficient reason to believe that there were mental problems, then there was no reason to handle things differently. The fact that he chose to end his life is very sad, but his suicide cannot be blamed on the state.
The fact that this guy was carrying a knife is, to a large extent, neither here nor there; he was living rough, he almost certainly had it for protection rather than to attack someone with. This is a terribly sad story. Yes the prisons are overstretched, but if people such as him were in mental institutions, where they could receive the help and treatment they needed, rather than locked up in prison where things are only going to be made worse, things would be better both for the prison service and for the mentally ill who end up as inmates.
Prisons take the worst from society. The drug addicted, the disturbed, people with personality disorders, and it therefore follows that prisons are full of those more inclined to have suicidal tendancies. You should therefore be congratulating the prison service and its employees for keeping so many of them from successfully killing themselves. For every successful suicide, there will be literally hundreds of attempts thwarted by dedicated, caring, prison staff, and therefore hundreds of lives saved.
Regardless of anything Wesley McGoldrick was a a person, and one who clearly needed support and guidance and his death should be shown as a shining example of the inadequacies of a system which allows LIVES to fall through the cracks.
I think there is much more to this story than we have been told, it is so improbable that a first time shop lifter would be remanded in prison. Also, his mental health problems were never proven so how was anybody else supposed to know? Finally, he could have returned home to live with his mother and get his life back on track but instead he turned to crime. So why is this all the fault of prisons?
Tracey Campbell, Rennes, France
I find it appalling that the doctor's note suggesting increasing signs of paranoia was not even seen by anyone at Brixton Prison. Had this happened, perhaps Wesley McGoldrick would have been better taken care of, better supervised and prevented from taking his own life. I see the point people are trying to make that the system alone shouldn't be blamed but the fact is he did commit the crime and he was put into custody, and once there i feel the police should have made more of an effort to take better care of him.
I have worked in the Prison Service as a nurse for 9 years and unfortunately been involved in caring for numerous prisoners who have self-harmed or attempted suicide, also several who actually did kill themselves. The sad fact is that it is impossible to watch 75,000 prisoners 24/7 which is what would be required to prevent any suicides at all. All that staff can do is attempt to identify those at highest risk and respond accordingly, however most people who have been involved with any suicides will know that many are completely out of the blue, others are a cry for help that goes too far. A suicide rate of 0.001% of the prison population is really not that bad if you look at it that way
Speaking from 1st hand experience as an ex-con there is absolutely nothing done for mentally ill prisoners, I saw numerous inmates who quite clearly should not have been in prison but should have been receiving treatment. To watch them gradually deteriorate and in two cases commit suicide was very depressing. I will say however that the majority of prison warders were decent people they felt the same, that these guys simply shouldn't be there but their hands were tied. Furthermore there is no rehabilitation in English prisons, it's a disgrace you end up with youngsters going to prison for minor offences and coming out having learnt a whole load of new criminal skills, prisons are basically schools for criminals.
If he wasn't in prison he would probably still have committed suicide. I was in a similar situation when I was a teenager and I ended up on remand. Some parents just don't know what is happening to their children.
S Brown, Mansfield
How does locking the disadvantaged up in cells help anybody? Prisons are a breeding ground of crime and drug addiction. Rehabilitaion? You must be joking.
So many people feel that this young man was in need of support and guidance but seem to overlook the fact that he was stealing and was armed with a knife. He may well have had it for self defence, but does that mean he would never have used it on someone in the process of committing a crime? The system may well be partly to blame, but there are many more factors that cause someone to turn to crime.
Having helped run Christian Courses in Prison and seen many young men like Wesley my assessment of the present system is that "Prison is not the answer" these young men are often crying out for Love and compassion in their lives and so often what they get is the opposite, a radical rethink is required , we cannot continue locking people up hoping the problem will go away.
John Corbin Leeds, Leeds West Yorkshire
All the paper work, the pressures, the deadlines for training to prevent such tragedies take place at prisons. However every person that kills himself is a horrendous thing that we should look at. I do believe that we get so wrapped up in procedures and processes and protocol that we forget that the person we are dealing with is suffering every minute of the time we take to fill papers out!! Its disappointing and shameful. Working at a prison myself with young people, I find it enormously frustrating. I can feel the pain of his family.
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