More deaths in prison from natural causes and still too many suicides says Prisons Ombudsman

Nigel Newcomen
Nigel Newcomen

A rapidly ageing prison population was largely behind the 15% increase in deaths of prisoners from natural causes in 2014-15. This has meant that prisons designed for fit young men must increasingly adjust to the roles of care home and even hospice, said Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Nigel Newcomen, as he published his annual report. He added that, while suicides reduced by 16%, the number remained unacceptably high.

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) independently investigates the circumstances of each death in custody and identifies lessons that need to be learned to improve safety. In 2014-15:

there were 250 deaths in 2014-15, 11 (5%) more than the year before;
the PPO began 15% more investigations into deaths from natural causes (155 deaths), largely as a consequence of rising numbers of older prisoners;
the average age of those who died of natural causes was 58 compared to 37 for all other deaths;
there were 76 self-inflicted deaths, a welcome 16% decrease from the previous year, but high relative to recent years;
there were four apparent homicides, the same number as the previous year; and
a further seven deaths were classified as ‘other non-natural’ and eight await classification.

Nigel Newcomen said:

“It is remarkable that the fastest growing segment of the prison population is prisoners over 60 and the second fastest is prisoners over 50. Longer sentences and more late in life prosecutions for historic sex offences mean that this ageing prisoner profile – and rising numbers of associated natural cause deaths – will become an ever more typical feature of our prison system.”

“My investigations into deaths from natural causes have identified some lessons which have not previously been of such widespread importance. For example, the need for improved health and social care for infirm prisoners; the obligation to adjust accommodation and regimes to the requirements of the retired and immobile; the demand for more dedicated palliative care suites for those reaching the end of their lives; and the call for better training and support for staff who must now routinely manage death itself.”

On suicides, he said:

“The number of self-inflicted deaths in custody remains unacceptably high and, in 2014-15, there were still 38% more than in 2012-13. I am, therefore, pleased that the review of the Prison Service’s suicide and self-harm prevention (ACCT) procedures, which I called for in last year’s annual report, has begun. I am also pleased that Lord Harris’s important review of self-inflicted deaths among 18 to 24-year-olds in prison has been published. Together, these reviews should put suicide prevention in prisons centre stage and ensure that ACCT procedures – now over a decade old – are fit for purpose in a prison system with many more prisoners and fewer staff.”

The other principal part of the PPO’s remit is the independent investigation of complaints. In 2014-15, a substantial backlog of complaints was eradicated, and:

the total number of complaints received increased slightly to 4,964, a 2% increase on the previous year;
however, the number of cases accepted for investigation rose by 13%;
2,380 investigations were started, compared to 2,111 the year before;
overall, 2,159 investigations were completed, an 11% improvement compared to 2013-14;
39% of complaints were upheld, compared to 34% the previous year; and
the largest category of complaints was about lost, damaged and confiscated property, making up 28% of investigations.

Nigel Newcomen said:

“The types of complaint I am called upon to investigate vary year to year, although property complaints consistently predominate. Last year, there were more complaints about regime issues and transfers, which was predictable at a time of cutbacks and crowding. Perhaps of greatest concern was the 23% increase in complaints about staff behaviour, including allegations of assault and bullying.

“My staff have responded well to the increasing demands. Not only were almost all draft fatal incident reports on time (97%), we also eradicated a substantial historic backlog of complaints which has enabled a gradual improvement in complaint timeliness. These improvements have been achieved by changing the way we work, for example by being more proportionate and declining to investigate more minor complaints so we can focus on more serious cases and – of course – by the sheer hard work of my staff.

“There is much more to do, but we are well placed to deliver on our vision of supporting improvement in safety and fairness in prisons, immigration detention and probation, even at this particularly challenging time.”

The recommendations made as a result of PPO investigations are key to making improvements in safety and fairness in custody. The past year also saw the publication of a range of learning lessons publications which build on the analysis and recommendations in individual investigations to look thematically and more broadly at areas for improvement. Five of this year’s seven publications focused on self-inflicted deaths. Other publications explored learning from complaints about prisoners’ difficulties in maintaining family ties and why some groups of prisoners, such as women and children, rarely make complaints at all.

A copy of the report can be found on the PPO website. Visit

“Laughing Stock” Prisons Ombudsman Has Derisory £10 Offer Increased By Judge To Over £800

A triple killer has won £800 in compensation after some of his belongings, including nose hair clippers, cranberry juice and an alarm clock, were lost or broken in prison. – and after he rejected a derisory offer of £10 compensation from the much-criticised Prisons Ombudsman.

Kevan Thakrar, 26, was awarded £500 because prison officers lost “priceless” photographs and personal items – which a judge said was made worse because they did not apologise to him.

Thakrar, from Stevenage, Hertfordshire, is serving three life sentences with a minimum of 35 years behind bars after he and his brother Miran were jailed in 2007 for the gangland-style execution of three drug dealers and two other attempted murders.

In March 2010 he maimed three guards at Frankland Prison in County Durham after stabbing them with a broken battle, but was cleared of two counts of attempted murder and three of wounding with intent, a decision which prompted widespread fury.

Following the attack Thakrar was moved from Frankland to Woodhill Prison in Milton Keynes and it was during this move that some of his possessions were misplaced.

According to the court judgment, detailed on Thakrar’s Facebook page, he was awarded £224.97 for damage to his stereo, alarm clock and nasal clippers.

He was also awarded £90 after items including a carton of cranberry juice, protein powder and toiletries were lost, which he claimed left him “stressed”.

District Judge Neil Hickman said there had been a “somewhat cavalier disregard for Mr Thakrar’s rights and for his property”, and awarded him a further £500 to compensate him for lost photographs and personal items, making £814.97 in total.

The judge added: “Had the defendants said promptly and sincerely to Mr Thakrar that they deeply regretted the loss of his personal items and understood his distress, the loss of them would not have been aggravated in the way that it has been.

“So far from doing that, the ministry has steadfastly failed even to tender the grudging and belated apology which was recommended by the ombudsman.”

The prison ombudsman had originally offered Thakrar £10 in compensation, but the killer took the case to court last year, and District Judge Hickman ruled that he deserved a further payout.

The judge said there had been an “outrageous delay” of 13 months in the ombudsman paying the proposed £10, which he said had “all the appearance of a calculated gesture on the part of the ministry”.

Following the payout Thakrar boasted about it on his Facebook page, saying that he had hoped to send bailiffs to the Ministry of Justice to ensure they paid his compensation.A prison guard who Thakrar attacked condemned the claim as laughable.

Craig Wylde, who was left with a severed artery and damaged nerves, told the Daily Mail:

“It is another case of the prisoner getting everything and the real victims getting nothing.

“He is always trying it on. This is the sort of person he is. He has to complain about everything and thinks he’s a big man because he’s challenging the system. This latest claim will have cost thousands and thousands of taxpayers’ money. It is just totally pathetic.”

A Prison Service spokeswoman said: “We robustly defend all cases as far as the evidence allows.”

Thakrar was first jailed after he and his brother killed Keith Cowell, 52, his son Matthew, 17, and Tony Dulieu, 33, from Essex, at the Cowells’ house in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire.

The men had met at the house to do a cocaine deal, but Miran Thakrar, a small-time drug dealer, was angry that he had been sold poor quality cocaine previously by the Cowells and was out for revenge.

Miran Thakrar shot the family dog and then lined up Keith Cowell, Matthew Cowell and Mr Dulieu, and shot them dead as his brother Kevan looked on.

The brothers also shot and stabbed Ms Jennings and attacked Ms Evans with a knife as she tried to shield her three-year-old daughter.

Mark Leech editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners said the case showed why Prisons Ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, was so often derided by prisoners who had no faith in his alleged independence.

Mr Leech said: “The Prisons Ombudsman is a joke, a laughing stock, a former senior member of the very prison service he now claims to independently investigate prisoners rightly have no confidence in him.

“Kevan’s crimes have nothing to do with this case, the prison service lost or broke his property and he has the right to be compensated for that – the judge’s comments that the Prisons Ombudsman had made a ‘calculated gesture’ show why its vital that Ombudsmen must never have prior involvement with the organisations they investigate, Nigel Newcomen spent 25 years in the Prison Service latterly as an Assistant Director its crazy to expect him to be independent of it.”

Poor Management of Prisoners’ Property is Wasting Public Money Says Ombudsman

prison int gate

Prisons need to manage prisoners’ property better to avoid claims for compensation and the cost of investigating complaints, said Nigel Newcomen, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO). He added that if prisons paid greater attention to their responsibility for prisoners’ property, this would avoid frustration for prisoners and the wasting of staff time on investigating complaints and arguing about compensation. Today he published a report on the lessons that can be learned about complaints received from prisoners about property

While the PPO investigates some very serious complaints, including assaults and racism – as well as all deaths in custody – the most common subject of complaint is lost or damaged property. These complaints also have the highest uphold rates where the PPO finds in favour of the prisoner. Over the past ten years, property complaints made up between 14% and 18% of all eligible complaints received. This proportion increased to 21% in 2012-13. The report, Learning from PPO Investigations: Property complaints, reviews property complaints received by the PPO in the first six months of 2012-13. 

The report highlights steps that prisons can take to improve:

  • ensure paperwork is completed correctly to record prisoners’ property so it can be reviewed if disputes arise;
  • recognise that possessions even if low value can have great importance to prisoners and should be managed according to Prison Service instructions;
  • follow Prison Service instructions about which religious items prisoners are allowed in their cells;
  • be proportionate when destroying items;
  • use photography more widely to better record which items prisoners hold and to reduce compensation claims.
  • respond effectively to prisoners’ complaints about lost or damaged property; and
  • accept responsibility when processes have not been followed, and when a prisoner is transferred, the sending prison should ensure that property arrives intact and undamaged at the receiving prison.

Nigel Newcomen said:

“Most property complaints concern small value items, but these can still mean a lot to prisoners with little. Unfortunately, too many of the issues involved could and should have been dealt with more quickly and efficiently by the prisons concerned. Instead, despite perfectly sound national policies and instructions, prisons too often refuse to accept their responsibilities when property has been lost or damaged. This leaves prisoners in limbo, creates unnecessary frustration and tension and leads to complaints, too many of which require independent adjudication. Using up scarce staff resources in this way, both in prison and then in my office, is not a good use of public money.”

A copy of the report can be found on the PPO website. Visit

Learning Lessons From Murders In Prison Report

Mitchell Harrison murdered in HMP Frankland
Mitchell Harrison murdered in HMP Frankland


Homicides in prison are rare but there are still lessons to be learned from them, said Nigel Newcomen, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), as he published a bulletin.

The PPO investigates all deaths in custody and his remit is to examine the circumstances surrounding the death and establish whether anything can be done to help prevent similar tragedies in the future. Since 2003, the PPO has investigated 16 homicides in prisons in England and Wales. During the same period, the PPO investigated over 1,500 other deaths, either self-inflicted or from natural causes.

The bulletin highlights:

  • the need for prison staff to have access to and make use of all available information when assessing the risk involved in a prisoner sharing a cell;
  • the need for the Prison Service to manage carefully the risks that vulnerable prisoners pose to one another, including when they are separated from mainstream prisoners in vulnerable prisoner units; and
  • the need for safe and consistent procedures for cell door locks when prisoners are unlocked.

Nigel Newcomen said:

“This Learning Lessons Bulletin examines the lessons to be learned from the mercifully infrequent but nonetheless tragic killing of one prisoner by another in custody.

“These are some of the hardest deaths to learn lessons from. They occurred in 15 different establishments; prisons contain many people who pose a serious risk of harm to others, but very few kill in custody; and learning can be slow to emerge because of the need to build, and then not prejudice, a criminal case against those responsible. However, learning lessons about managing risk better could make homicides in prison rarer still.”

Mark Leech editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners in England and Wales said the cutting of budgets makes prisons more dangerous places.

“We have seen almost £500m wiped off the budgets of our prisons in the last two years, that results in less staff on duty and so a greater risk to prisoners and prison officers – if we want to make our prisons safer places then we have to pay for it – something our timid Prisons Ombudsman refuses to address.”

A copy of the bulletin can be found on the prison ombudsman’s website. Visit