By Niall McCracken
THE latest Prisoner Ombudsman report into the death of Frances McKeown explores allegations that she was bullied in the months leading up to her death after seeing a male prison officer kissing a female inmate – and was then blamed for reporting the incident.
The report provides an insight into the series of events following the incident that preceded Frances’ death and ultimately led to the governor of Hydebank, Gary Alcock, being suspended and charged with misconduct.
The Detail has learnt that while Mr Alcock will not be returning to Hydebank Wood, he is back at work within the prison service. A spokesperson for the prison service confirmed to The Detail that advertisements for the post of governor of Hydebank Wood would be “placed shortly.”
Meanwhile, the the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) has said that following the allegations there was insufficient evidence to warrant any disciplinary proceedings against the prison officer at the centre of the alleged incident. However, a spokesperson has said “NIPS will consider the Ombudsman’s Report and if deemed appropriate will review the case to determine if further action is required.”
Several witnesses interviewed by Prisoner Ombudsman Pauline McCabe and her team paint a clear picture of Frances being victimised after she said she saw inappropriate contact and they also claimed that the prison service made little effort to deal with either the allegation itself or what was happening to Frances.
In a separate investigation by The Detail this week we can also reveal that sIxteen claims have been brought against the Northern Ireland Prison Service by female inmates since 2004, including one alleging an incident of “a sexual nature”.CONCERNS
The Prisoner Ombudsman established that it was the case that Frances had told other inmates in December 2010 that she had seen a prison officer kiss ‘Inmate A’. The investigation found that Frances did not approach prison security staff with this information, but that the security department became aware of the allegation in a “different way.”
According to Mrs McCabe’s report, it was the case that Frances was subsequently spoken to by security staff and did confirm what she had said. Frances told other inmates that security staff had spoken to her but that she had “told them nothing”.
The Prisoner Ombudsman outlines that during the investigation she “became concerned” that the allegation made by Frances had not been adequately investigated and she informed prison service headquarters of this on April 5 2012. Mrs McCabe was informed that the governor at Hydebank Wood had given an assurance that the allegation had been investigated and that there was an investigation file.
Subsequently the Prisoner Ombudsman said that she would continue with her investigation and report her findings in connection with the matter in due course.
However, Mrs McCabe made the decision to forward an early report to the prison service because she believed that “further investigation of the adequacy of the investigation into the allegation made by Frances and the action subsequently taken, was required”.
The Prisoner Ombudsman stated further that this work fell outside the scope of the investigation into the death of Frances. However, the conclusion section of the early report outlined that:
- The governor at Hydebank Wood Prison has a duty of care to female inmates.
- The governor made it absolutely clear that if the allegation made by Frances McKeown was found to be true he would regard this as a serious disciplinary matter.
- The investigation that was carried out into Frances McKeown’s allegation by the Security Department and the Ash House governor was wholly inadequate. The attitude and approach to the investigation was not appropriate to the duty of care owed to female inmates and this duty was, therefore, breached.
- The governor did not take any steps to ensure that the findings reported to him were reasonable and appropriate in light of an allegation that he said he viewed as very serious, if substantiated.
- The arrangements for carrying out internal investigations at Hydebank Wood Prison are not appropriate.
- Protocols, recroding mechanisms, supervision arrangements, quality assurance arrangements and staff training in the Security Department at Hydebank Wood Prison are not appropriate.
As previously reported by The Detail, the Prisoner Ombudsman’s early report led to the governor of Hydebank Wood being suspended and an external independent investigation was commissioned. Following the external investigation, the governor was charged with misconduct.
In May 2012 following the suspension of the governor of Hydebank, we sent a request into the Department of Justice asking for further information on the “allegation that was made in the spring of last year concerning a prison officer who had been seen behaving inappropriately with a female inmate in Hydebank Wood Prison.”
We asked if the prison officer concerned had been removed from duties at Ash House in the prison or if the prison officer concerned had been on duty at Ash House on at least one date over the past six months
A spokesperson for the NI prison service said in May:
“An independent investigation will shortly commence into concerns raised by the Prisoner Ombudsman and it is therefore inappropriate for the NI Prison Service to comment further at this time.”
In its latest statement a spokesperson for NIPS said: “The alleged incident was the subject of an investigation which found insufficient evidence to warrant any disciplinary proceedings against the officer against whom the allegation was made. NIPS will consider the Ombudsman’s Report and if deemed appropriate will review the case to determine if further action is required.”THE ALLEGATION THAT FRANCES WAS BULLIED
The ombudsman’s report states that at interview, the governor of Ash House at the time of Frances’ death was asked if she had any knowledge of Frances being treated badly by other inmates after she alleged that she had seen an officer kissing an inmate.
The governor said: “Some of the girls had said that they weren’t speaking to her (Frances) because of the allegations.”
Asked if she had been told this by the inmates concerned, the governor said: “No, I think it was an anecdotal evidence that some of the staff were saying that there was a bit of tension…well not tension, tension is the wrong word, but there was a bit of quietness on the landing. And as far as I remember, I went back and asked Frances did she want to move of the landing and I think…this is only think…there was…we had some very difficult prisoners on A3 at the time and on A2 and it was our opinion and Frances’ opinion that she was best off on the 4s.”
The governor said she could not recall anyone actually telling her that inmates being unkind to Frances or that she was not taking her meals or leaving her cell.
During the Prisoner Ombudsman’s investigation several prison officers and senior officers who had responsibility for Frances during the period when it was alleged that she was being bullied were interviewed. Only one of the staff spoken to had any knowledge about the allegation made by Frances that she had seen a prison officer kissing an inmate, at the time it was said in December 2010.
According to the report the majority of staff said that it was well after the death of Frances in May 2011 that they first heard about the matter. One officer said that he could recall other inmates saying Frances had been “telling lies” and there was “a bit of tension.” None of the other staff interviewed recalled Frances being badly treated by other inmates but all accepted that it would be possible for there to be some ill-feeling between inmates without them being aware of this.INMATE EVIDENCE
The Prisoner Ombudsman outlines in her report that one inmate interviewed in prison and one interviewed outside of prison alleged that the officer, about whom Frances made the allegation, encouraged the inmate he was alleged to have kissed (Inmate A) to treat Frances badly. Mrs McCabe states that these allegations were brought to the attention of the prison service.
The report states that a number of inmates and ex-inmates spoke with the investigation team about their experience of Frances and a number of them said that Frances had been treated meanly by other inmates after she made the allegation. Some of the inmates also said that they were worried that they might be bullied themselves for providing the information to the Prisoner Ombudsman.
A number of the inmates confirmed to the investigation that at one point an argument between Frances and the inmate concerned led to them having to be separated by staff because they were going to fight.
The investigation also uncovered that when Frances was moved off Ash 4 landing on January 26 2011 it was recorded in the prison notes that the move was for operational reasons. However the Prisoner Ombudsman states that Frances requested the move on January 15 2011 stating: “I would like to request permission to move landings off Ash 4 as I have too much trouble with another inmate and it is starting to affect my mental health. I feel it would be better for both parties for us to be separated as we can’t work our differences out.”
In concluding the Prisoner Ombudsman claims that while Frances was not physically abused, she was ignored and spoken to in a way that could be described as bullying. The report outlines that in the case of some inmates, this appears to have continued for an extended period.
However, Mrs McCabe said that it is not possible to say what impact this had on Frances’ already fragile mental health and that “an examination of all the related evidence suggests that it is unlikely that bullying by other inmates was a direct cause of Frances’ death at the time when it occurred.”