HC Deb 18 December 1990 vol 183 cc265-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Patnick ]

10.35 pm
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

It is with great sadness that I have to bring the case of the late Darren Brook, a young offender, aged 19, to the Floor of the House of Commons. Darren was convicted of an assault on a publican. It was his first offence. He had never been in trouble before. He was of previous good character. He was given a nine-months prison sentence in a prison for young offenders. He was taken to Durham jail, a hard-line prison. There he was kept for three days. During those three days, he was subjected to the most brutal treatment of any prisoner in the prison, the perpetrator of which is now serving a life sentence.

During those three days, Darren was bullied and beaten, and even had his head shaved. All hon. Members should read what the court heard went on in those three days. It is a very sad case, and an indictment of our prison system. He was beaten up, he had a black eye for at least two days, he had a severe cut on one side of his eye and one on his hand, which was so swollen that his knuckles could not be seen. At some time during the 56 hours that he was in Durham prison, his head was shaved.

The prisoners saw what happened, but in prison no one squeals. No one says anything. They knew that this lad was being subjected to bullying and brutality, but no one else heard or saw it.

At the end of the trial, Judge Bell asked why Brook had been locked up with Carter, the man serving a life sentence, who had a long criminal record, and why prison officers did not notice injuries to Brook when other inmates clearly spotted them. After being told that an internal investigation had found no explanation, the judge said: I take the view that what has been revealed indicates barbaric practices perpetrated by one prisoner on another, which should not have been tolerated by any civilised society. All this happened in one of Her Majesty's prisons. A young lad, a first offender, went to serve his punishment there and ended up in a wooden box. That should not happen in this day and age.

I have already called for an independent inquiry into why this happened. The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) has called for one too. I do not know whether there will be one. I am told that the governor of Durham prison has conducted an internal inquiry. That means nothing, because he has done his job in his own kingdom, and he would certainly try to paint it white.

Certain questions must be asked. Was there a lack of supervision? Was there undermanning at the prison? Could it happen again? That is what the parents of the child came to see me about—

Mr. John Cummings (Easington)

Does my hon. Friend recall the case of Richard Rowland, who committed suicide in Durham prison 18 months ago? His family had begged and pleaded with the prison authorities to supervise him because they were extremely worried about his mental health. That was not done, and he committed suicide while his cellmates slept. That, too, was due to manning levels. Something must be done to afford some security to the relations of men serving time.

Mr. Campbell

I could not agree more. I was coming to that point. Supervision is important in prisons such as Durham. I have contacted the authorities who run the gaol. They told me that, at certain times of day, they are not in control of it. Someone had better go and have a look at Durham prison, or we shall have another Brixton on our hands.

There were no regular cell inspections; the authorities have not got the time. There was no observation, because they do not have the time. The officers do not work much overtime, and if they do, they are given days off in lieu—if they are lucky.

Why was this young man not sent to a young offenders prison straight away? Why are young offenders sent to hard prisons and put in cells with hardened criminals? These questions can be answered only by an independent inquiry. There should also have been an inquiry into the suicide case that my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) mentioned.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

How did the man die?

Mr. Campbell

He died from bullying and beatings. He was forced to tear his pillow case into strips, whereupon the perpetrator tied a noose to the bars of the cell and made the victim put his head into it. The third man in the cell put a towel over his head because he did not want to watch. He said afterwards that he heard Brook say, "I don't want to die."

The perpetrator, who is now serving a life sentence, kicked the stool away, and that was the end of Darren Brook. I have heard it said, although it has been denied, that if prisoners are in a cell with someone who hangs themselves, they get remission because of the trauma that they have experienced.

Mr. Skinner

Is that so?

Mr. Campbell

It is true. That will also come out in the inquiry—but in an independent inquiry, not one carried out by the governor. The House and the Opposition demand an independent inquiry.

10.44 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

I am sure that we can agree that it is a matter of great regret that the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) needed to accomplish this task this evening, and to raise this subject. I think that he was quite right to do so, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) would probably also have wished to be associated with the debate.

I do not think that I need to add to what has already been said by the hon. Members for Blyth Valley and for Easington (Mr. Cummings) about the distressing nature of the events surrounding the death and murder of Darren Brook. The death of any prisoner in custody is a matter of great regret. It is especially tragic when it occurs in such violent circumstances, and involves such a young man. It is a waste of life. It is a grievous loss to his family and to his friends, and I take the opportunity to express sympathy to them on behalf of the whole prison service.

I should add that such an incident is also obviously a traumatic experience for the prison. I share the hon. Member's profound concern. There were certainly warning signs which could, and perhaps should, have been apparent despite the extremely short interval between Darren Brook's reception and his death at the hands of his cellmate. As the hon. Member for Blyth Valley has said, the cellmate has recently been convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, but I cannot let the fact that a fellow inmate has been found guilty of this horrific murder absolve me, or the prison, from our responsibility to protect anyone in our care.

As the hon. Member for Blyth Valley has said, Darren Brook was received into the young offender wing at Durham Prison on 3 January, having been sentenced to nine months custody in a young offenders institution, for offences of wounding and occasioning actual bodily harm. It is normal practice for young offenders sentenced to a period of custody to be received into a young offender wing at a local prison to be assessed for allocation to a suitable young offender institution. It is important to stress that young offenders at Durham are kept separate from the rest of the prison and do not mix with adult offenders.

However, as the hon. Gentleman said, early on the morning of 6 January, Darren Brook was found hanged in his cell, which he shared with two other young offenders. His two cellmates at first claimed that he had committed suicide. The police were immediately called in, and one of the cellmates, Kenneth Carter, was subsequently charged with the murder. As we know, he has since been found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

It is clear that there was lack of supervision during the period between Mr. Brook's reception into the prison and his subsequent death. The hon. Gentleman has correctly pointed out that statements from other prisoners appear to show that Carter assaulted Darren Brook on the evening of 4 January, and that he had a swollen right eye, broken skin on his right hand and a bruised left hand as a result.

During the course of the next day, the young prisoners on the wing were allowed a recreation period, supervised by prison staff. No member of staff noticed the injury to Darren Brook's eye, or the other injuries, either then or during the rest of the day. Darren Brook did not complain or seek medical treatment for his injuries. Nor did he report the bullying by his cellmates to a member of staff. However, it is clear from the evidence of the third occupant of the cell that his condition was the result of attacks by Carter.

When this happened, the newly-appointed governor had not yet taken up his post. He arrived on 7 January and immediately began a full investigation into both the circumstances of the death and the management of the young offenders wing. It is therefore not true to say that the governor was, in effect, trying to cover his tracks. He was a new appointment; he had not been associated with the prison before; and he came in to find a very serious problem.

Let me explain what happened subsequently: it may allay the hon. Gentleman's fears somewhat. The governor discovered several shortcomings in the management of the young offender wing. There was no selection process for allocating young offenders to cells; the majority of young offenders were housed three to a cell; the young offender regime was poor, with little opportunity for constructive use of time or activities to help personal development. Certainly staff continuity on the wing was poor; because of the wide range of work undertaken by local prisons such as Durham, together with the importance of servicing the courts, there were frequent abrupt changes of staff on the wing.

No cell inspections or visits to young offenders were taking place, as the hon. Member for Blyth Valley has pointed out. Too many young offenders were being housed in Durham: at the time of the incident, there were 40, and allocations to young offender institutions were often unreasonably delayed.

The governor reported his findings, and made immediate changes to improve conditions. The practice of housing young offenders three to a cell ceased immediately. Young offenders are now allocated to young offender institutions within three days of being sentenced, with the vast majority being transferred to suitable establishments within one week of arrival at Durham. The number of young offenders held has been considerably reduced: at present, only 14 are being held in Durham.

The regime has been improved, and, although the wing is not intended to replace a young offender institution and will never be able to offer the wide range of educational and recreational facilities that are available at a proper young-offender establishment, young offenders now have the opportunity to attend education classes and enjoy an enhanced programme of physical recreation.

Staff continuity on the wing has been made a priority, and there is now an identifiable wing manager. Wing supervision has also been enhanced by the daily visit of a member of the senior prison management. In addition, all young offenders are now seen on a weekly basis by a member of the board of visitors. But perhaps the most important change is that staff on the wing are now given explicit instructions, with clear briefing, on their responsibility to detect bullying.

At the conclusion of the trial of Kenneth Carter, the trial judge, Mr. Justice Potts, asked the prison governor to comment on the circumstances surrounding the murder. The governor described the changes that I have just outlined. Mr. Justice Potts expressed his satisfaction at the steps taken at the prison to avoid a similar occurrence—and I believe that the correct action has been taken to avoid any further mishaps of this kind.

The hon. Member for Blyth Valley made a number of allegations, and I hope that what I have said has allayed his fears. I fully understand his deep and passionate feeling about the circumstances surrounding the death of Darren Brook.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell

I am pleased to learn that changes have been made, but I must again make my most important allegation. I have spoken to the people who run the prison, and I have been told that, at certain times of the day, they are not in control. They say that they are overworked and undermanned, and have not enough time. The Minister has said that things have changed, but that is what I was told today, and, if that is what I am being told today, as far as I am concerned nothing has changed.

Mrs. Rumbold

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern. If that is his most recent information, I shall take the matter back and make inquiries on his behalf. I shall try to reassure him later, by letter, if not by means of a personal visit. I am making a great effort to try to visit as many institutions as I can and intend to come to the north-east to see for myself some of the institutions and establishments there. It is important absolutely to satisfy oneself that our establishments are run as humanely and satsifactorily as possible. Given the circumstances surrounding local prisons in many busy towns and cities, it is even more important to ensure that, having happened once, such an occurrence does not happen in the future. It is my intention—I know that it is the intention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—that such an event should not occur in future.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that bullying among the young offender population is a problem that the prison service shares with many other residential institutions. In 1984, we took action to give guidance to all those who deal with young offenders. We gave advice on how to detect and prevent the spread of bullying among young offenders. We made the advice widely available throughout the young offender system. The nature of the bullying of Darren Brook by Kenneth Carter, which escalated in the course of 24 hours from simple physical abuse to murder, was of a very different order from anything previously encountered in the prison service. Obviously, we hope that that was a unique event, but certain lessons have definitely been learned.

As I have said, I give my personal undertaking that I shall investigate the hon. Gentleman's assertions and come back to him in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Eleven o'clock.