1 May 2013

Vulnerable women still being failed by justice system

Six years after a report recommended a shake-up in the way vulnerable mothers of young children are treated by the justice system, prisoners are still dying.

Their relatives – and the author of that report, Baroness Corston – want to know why it’s taking so long to change the system.

Figures show that women make up just 5 per cent of the prison population, but are responsible for a third of all incidents of self harm.

A number of projects have been set up to divert women with mental health problems away from prison, but a national coordinated programme has still not been fully implemented because health ministers have yet to agree the costs.

Channel 4 News has found that one scheme already operating in one of London’s magistrates courts has – in just one year – contributed to a 40 per cent reduction in the number of women in one borough being sent to prison.

Melanie Beswick, who committed suicide in prison while depressed (family photo)

A mother’s story

“Nobody should have to go through what we’ve been through” says the mother of a vulnerable woman who killed herself in prison whilst suffering from severe depression.

Melanie Beswick (pictured) had already served a prison sentence for fraud but was sent back a second time because she wasn’t able to repay the money.

Following the inquest into her death at HMP Send, her mother Marge Davies has called on the government to find better ways to deal with women who have committed non-violent crimes and have young families.

Marge told Channel 4 News: “I just don’t want anybody else to go through what we’ve been through, especially chidren…it’s terrible. It’s the complete system to blame. She just stole some money. They put her in prison twice for the same offence, and then to kill herself – nobody should be made to suffer like that – nobody”.

Sentenced for fraud

Melanie was 32 when she got a job as a finance officer at her local Citizens Advice Bureau in Portsmouth. She had two young daughters, aged 4 and 7 and had been suffering from post natal depression since her first child was born.

She began stealing money three months into the job to pay back loans and between July 2007 and May 2008 had taken a total of £20,000. In March 2009 Melanie pleaded guilty to 8 counts of fraud at Portsmouth Crown Court and got a nine month prison sentence.

She was first sent to women’s prison Bronzefield in Midldlesex and began self-harming. Marge said she seemed ok on the surface but they found out later that her mental state was deteriorating rapidly and she had made her first attempt at suicide.

Marge said: “We found out afterwards that she’d ligatured…she’d tried to hang herself, because that’s what it is…”


When she came out she tried to lead a normal life in her home town of Portsmouth with her husband and daughters but was struggling to cope and in denial about the fact she had to repay the money she’d stolen.

After six months she still hadn’t paid the money back, so was summoned back to court and was told she was going to be sent back to prison – for even longer this time.

She was sent to HMP Send in Woking, Surrey, a mixed category prison. Her depression spiralled and Melanie was put on an Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) system used for prisoners at risk of self-harm.

She’d complained of being bullied and was frightened she wouldn’t be able to pay the money back and face an even longer sentence…

On August 21st 2010 that her mental state severely deteriorated. A prison officer went to check on Melanie and found her lying under her bed, unresponsive. She was taken to the Royal Surrey Hospital where she became uncharacteristically aggressive.

‘High risk’

The inquest into her death heard that Melanie had gone from being near catatonic to aggressive in the space of minutes. She kept trying to pull out the canulars in her arms and bend the tubes to stop the fluids going into her. She kept having to be restrained.

One prison officer told how she tried to wrap the escort chain round her neck several times. She kept making statements like “I’m worthless and I don’t want to live”..

The doctor eventually discharged her, but said she was at high risk of self harm and needed constant monitoring and mental health support.

Back at prison though she was only placed on hourly observations and was told to “wait” when she asked to speak to a listener – another prisoner trained by the samaritans.

At 8.35pm she was found unconscious in her cell, with her shoelaces tied round her neck. A senior officer tried to resuscitate her but she was pronounced dead at 10pm that night.

The inquest jury found Melanie took her own life whilst the balance of her mind was unstable. They also expressed concern about the lack of communication between the hospital and prison and within the prison.

Marge said: “Yes, she made a mistake, one mistake, nicking some money, sort of thing and suffered for it .. and it killed her .. and I hate that.”

“Thin, mean document”

Last month the Justice Minister Helen Grant published measures to reduce the female prison population through more use of community sentences and the setting of an advisory board.

But the woman who wrote that damning review into a series of suicides by women at Styal prison, has accused the government of doing too little.

Baroness Jean Corston said “this government does not understand the situation with regard to women generally – what gender-specific services are, and what kind of priority should be given. If they did, it would not have taken one year and ten days to publish what is a thin, mean document.”