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Friday, 10 December, 1999, 16:44 GMT
Prison slow to tell family of suicide

Cornton Vale Prison Mary Cowan was on remand awaiting sentence

A sheriff has cleared prison authorities of blame for the death of an inmate at Cornton Vale women's jail.

However, staff were criticised for their slowness in informing the woman's family of her suicide.

Sheriff Principal John Wheatley rejected allegations that the death of 27-year-old Mary Cowan could have been avoided if Cornton Vale Prison staff had taken "greater care".

Miss Cowan, from Glasgow, was found hanging in her cell at the prison near Stirling on 3 July, 1998. She was the eighth inmate to commit suicide at the jail since 1995.

Cornton Vale cell Miss Cowan hanged herself in her cell
The single mother, who was on remand awaiting sentence on a shoplifting charge, died the next day at Stirling Royal Infirmary.

A fatal accident inquiry at Stirling Sheriff Court earlier this year heard how Miss Cowan, a heroin addict from the age of 16, became upset at the death of childhood friend Gavin Hester.

He was found hanging in his cell in Greenock Prison nine days before her death.

She made a macabre drawing with three coffins, one marked "Gavin", and wrote: "It probably won't be too long before we're together again."

Visit refused

Her family alleged prison authorities' refusal to allow Miss Cowan to attend Mr Hester's funeral had pushed her over the edge.

Her mother Helen said she had repeatedly phoned the jail on the day her daughter died.

She was complaining about staff's refusal to allow Miss Cowan's sister to visit her to let her know how the funeral had gone.

The inquiry heard that, while the family made numerous calls demanding an explanation, they were not told that staff were dealing with Miss Cowan's suicide.

Criticism justified

They were informed four hours later that Miss Cowan was in hospital.

In his findings from the inquiry, Sheriff Principal Wheatley said the suicide of Miss Cowan, who had a 10-year-old son, could not be laid at the blame of the prison.

He said: "Even with hindsight it is difficult to find grounds for criticism of either the prison's suicide prevention strategy, or the conduct of the staff."

"Failed visits may be the occasion of profound distress for prisoners, and indeed may be the catalyst for suicide attempts."

He said justifiable criticism was levelled at the failure of prison staff to get in touch with Miss Cowan's family in the immediate aftermath of the hanging.

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See also:
04 Nov 99 |  Scotland
Governor's plea for women's sentencing reform
26 Aug 99 |  Scotland
Drugs main concern for prison chiefs
02 Sep 99 |  Scotland
Call for new teen offenders strategy

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