PPO Publishes Report into Death in Custody from Heatstroke

“Serious failings” must be addressed after a man died from heat stroke after being held in a police van and a stuffy court cell on one of the hottest days in 40 years, a watchdog said.

Rafal Sochacki, a 43-year-old Polish national arrested on an extradition warrant, died in Westminster Magistrates’ Court on June 21 2017.

On Tuesday 2nd July a jury in an inquest into his death concluded it was most likely caused by him being subjected to excessive heat, according to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO).

After the ruling PPO Sue McAllister published an independent report into the death, identifying “serious failings” which should be addressed.

The van taking Mr Sochacki from Wood Green police station to the court stopped at Charing Cross police station on the way, the PPO report said.

He spent 50 minutes in his cell in the vehicle with the engine and air-conditioning turned off, according to the report.

Temperatures in central London reached over 30C (86F) on June 21 2017 and was regarded as the hottest June day in London for 40 years.

The air-conditioning at Westminster Magistrates Court in Marylebone had not worked for weeks.

Portable air-conditioning units provided staff with some relief from the heat but did not effectively help detainees in cells, the PPO said.

Mr Sochacki arrived at the court “drenched with sweat” and within three hours he was “behaving bizarrely”, picking and pulling at his clothing or shouting and hitting his cell door.

Some two hours later, he was found unresponsive and later died at the court, despite attempts to resuscitate him.

His body heat reached at least 39.6C (103F).

Mr Sochacki died of cardiovascular collapse caused by hyperthermia (severe heat stroke) and hypertensive heart disease, the PPO said.

Ms McAllister will now meet government bodies responsible for court transfers and detention as well as private contractor Serco to discuss changes that need to be made.

She said: “I am very concerned that there were inadequate contingency plans when the court’s air-conditioning failed.

“Our investigation also found deficiencies in the way staff managed Mr Sochacki during his transfer to and time in a cell at Westminster Magistrates’ Court.

“We found some apparent non-compliance by Serco staff in delivering their contracted service and we have drawn this to the attention of both Serco and those responsible for the management of their contracts at HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS.)”

Julia Rogers, Serco managing director for justice and immigration, said: “Any death in custody is a tragedy and our thoughts are with the family and friends of Mr Sochacki.

“We are pleased the coroner found that our officers had carried out their duties properly and did everything they could to help Mr Sochacki.

“We have been working closely with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and already agreed new procedures to manage extreme temperatures in our vehicles and in the court custody suites.

“The MoJ will also be providing us with a new specialist heat sensory device, that was not previously required, to trial in the custody suites.”

A MoJ spokesman said: “Our thoughts remain with Mr Sochacki’s loved ones and we apologise for our failings in this case.

“Lessons have been learnt from this tragic incident.

“We have established clear procedures when court cells reach set temperatures and when there are excessive delays in collections, and all of our buildings now have ready access to a defibrillator.

“We will continue to learn from this and ensure we are doing everything possible to keep those in custody safe and well.”

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman wrote in their report:

Mr Rafal Sochacki died of cardiovascular collapse caused by hyperthermia (severe heat stroke) and hypertensive heart disease in a court cell at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 21 June 2017.
He was 43 years old.
The circumstances of Mr Sochacki’s death are very disturbing. On the way to court he spent 50 minutes parked in an unventilated escort vehicle and was then held for nearly five hours in an unventilated court cell on one of the hottest days of 2017. The court’s air conditioning was not working and police estimated that the temperature in Mr Sochacki’s cell was between 34⁰C and 40⁰C at the time of his death.
I am very concerned that there were inadequate contingency plans when the court’s airconditioning failed. Staff were aware that the temperature in the cells was excessively hot and it is unacceptable that Mr Sochacki and other detainees were left in those conditions for hours.
Our investigation also found deficiencies in the way staff managed Mr Sochacki during his transfer to and time in a cell at Westminster Magistrates’ Court.
We found some apparent non-compliance by Serco staff in delivering their contracted service and we have drawn this to the attention of both Serco and those responsible for the management of their contracts at HMPPS and HMCTS.

Read the Report