News / Public Inquiry into the 1998 death of Sonny Lodge in HMP...


Public Inquiry into the 1998 death of Sonny Lodge in HMP Manchester delivers hard-hitting final report criticising Prison Service and officers  

16/12/2009

Mr Lodge would probably not have taken his life if proper care had been afforded to him. Prison officers involved in his case had serious disciplinary findings against them for assault and misfeasance in public office.

Eleven and a half years after the death of Sonny Lodge, on 28 August 1998 in the segregation unit of HMP Manchester, the Public Inquiry into his death has delivered its final report.

The original 2001 Inquest finished in uproar as one juror refused to sign the inquisition and others made public their concerns at being prevented from delivering a meaningful verdict. The subsequent judicial review was initially linked with the leading case of; Middleton , which changed the law on jury verdicts in such cases. But despite the significant change in the law brought about by that case the Coroner declined to hold a fresh Inquest on the basis that Sonny’s death pre-dated the coming into force of the Human Rights Act 1998 and was not thereby bound by the development in the law.

The family then petitioned the Home Office (prior to the formation of the Ministry of Justice), and under threat of an application to the European Court of Human Rights, the Minister agreed to set up an ad hoc public inquiry. This was later to be transformed into a statutory inquiry pursuant to the Inquiries Act 2005, due to ex-prison staff being reluctant or refusing to attend voluntarily.

The Inquiry was conducted by Barbara Stow, Chair of the Inquiry (ex-Deputy Ombudsman), and Chris Topping, Solicitor to the Inquiry (Jackson and Canter). The initial stages were spent in determining procedure and there was a lengthy disclosure stage, where the Inquiry called for all pertinent documentation, and brought to light highly relevant material which had not been made available to the family or put in the public domain previously. Witness statements were taken following letters from the Inquiry asking particular questions. There followed a series of public hearings at which witnesses gave oral evidence as to the sequence of events leading to Mr Lodge’s death, and the prison regime then and now.

Sonny Lodge was a petty offender who had served a number of prison sentences mainly for acquisitive crime. He was a vulnerable prisoner who had seriously self-harmed on a number of occasions. About two months prior to his death he had cut his arms whilst at HMP Risley, requiring 240 stitches. On a visit to Whiston Hospital there was an incident in a toilet cubicle with one of the escorting officers PO Brownley, involving counter-allegations of assault. The police were involved and Sonny was charged with assault. At the time of his death his existing sentence had come to an end and he was detained solely on remand for the Whiston alleged assault.

Sonny was transferred to HMP Garth where a self harm F2052SH folder was opened. He was further transferred to HMP Manchester where the F2052SH was closed. Sonny alleged that he was victimised at HMP Manchester. On 27 August 1998 there was a further incident involving a cell search by POs Bowcock and Downs. Again there were conflicting allegations. Sonny was taken to the segregation block and subject to a disciplinary adjudication the next day. The Governor found a charge of assault proven and ordered that Sonny be kept in segregation. He killed himself later that day.

The Inquiry found;

  • At the time of the Whiston incident there was a rumour circulating in HMP Risley that PO Brownley would engineer an assault by a prisoner in order to go off sick. He had been convicted of drink-driving and had unsuccessfully tried to transfer to a prison nearer home. His line manager, Governor Williams had warned him about the rumour a few days before the incident.
  • Whereas it was not possible to draw a conclusion as to whether the incident was premeditated or contrived, on the balance of probabilities Sonny pushed the officer in response to his inappropriate and unjustified movement towards him.
  • The disciplinary record of PO Brownley (which included a finding of assault on another prisoner three years earlier), and the fact of the rumour, should have been disclosed by the prison service to the police investigating the Whiston incident.
  • Proper prison records were not completed and there was no investigation into PO Brownley’s conduct.
  • PO Brownley was medically retired, aged 34, as a result of a thumb injury he allegedly suffered during this incident.
  • Sonny’s sense of victimisation may have been exaggerated but was not without foundation, and affected his state of mind. There was no evidence of a conspiracy by officers at HMP Manchester regarding the Whiston incident, but there was an unfair disciplinary system which increased Sonny’s isolation.
  • The loss of association imposed on Sonny on 27 August 1998 by PO Downs was not properly authorised or recorded.
  • Subsequent to Sonny’s death but before the inquest PO Downs was the subject of allegations by another prisoner in a successful High Court claim. The Court found as a fact that PO Downs had taunted and abused a prisoner whom he knew had suffered childhood sexual abuse, and that PO Downs had falsified an allegation against the prisoner. The judge found that his conduct was harassment within the meaning of the word in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 , it was an abuse of power, misfeasance in public office and he had breach the prisoner’s Article 8 rights. PO Downs was sacked for these wrongdoings but was later reinstated on appeal.
  • The cell search on 27 August 1998 was not a consciously vindictive act but the officers showed indifference to Sonny and his welfare. PO Bowcock was provocative and unprofessional in the way he drew attention to prison rules during the search. There was insufficient evidence to determine who did what in the incident or as to whether use of force was justified. Proper records were not completed about the incident and was not properly investigated.
  • PO Bowcock showed a casual disregard for his obligation to give evidence at the adjudication on 28 August 1998 accurately and with care.
  • The adjudicating Governor on 28 August 1998 acted in good faith, deciding that Sonny would get the best care in solitary confinement, but solitary confinement is punishment and isolation may increase vulnerability. Governor McColm did not explore the circumstances sufficiently to dispose of the counter-allegation of assault by PO Bowcock, nor did he explore the circumstances sufficiently to make the finding that the charge was proven beyond reasonable doubt. Neither the Governor nor the Doctor who fitted Sonny for adjudication and solitary confinement were aware of his self-harming history.
  • Sonny was not observed in segregation as required by prison service policy.
  • Crucially there was a systemic failure to protect Sonny in the last days of his life in that the prison service;

- Failed to sufficiently heed the warnings of his family that he was suicidal,

- A self harm F2052SH folder was not opened despite clear reasons why it should have been.

The Chair found;

“ If information had been shared properly, an F2052SH would have been opened. This would have altered the course of events and would probably have prevented Sonny Lodge taking his life when he did.”

This was a highly successful Public Inquiry but one which only occurred because of the determination of Sonny’s family. At the Inquest they asserted their astonishment that officers with such disciplinary findings as assault against prisoners could remain employed by the prison service – a point echoed by the Chair of the Inquiry - and that an officer could be medically retired at the age of 34 because of an injury to his thumb. The evidence of the rumours about PO Brownley wanting to engineer an incident were raised from the outset by Governor Williams but were not disclosed to the family at the time, at the Inquest, or until a late stage of this Inquiry. The disciplinary records of POs Brownley and Downs were not disclosed until the day before the oral hearings in the Public Inquiry; ten years after Sonny’s death. The family asserted that these matters illustrated a culture of deniability and an institutional defensiveness which perpetuated the serious issues surrounding deaths in custody.

Sonny’s family were represented by Pete Weatherby of Garden Court North, and Robert Lizar of Robert Lizar Solicitors , Manchester.

Quick links

The full Inquiry report is available from;

http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/hc0910/hc01/0127/0127.pdf

Media coverage

> 15/12/09 - Failures over inmate's cell death (BBC News online)

> 15/12/09 - Prison Service slated over suicide (Manchester Evening News)

> 15/12/ 09 - North West Tonight (fast forward through the first 4 minutes of the broadcast to the report on Sonny Lodge)

Background

> 30/09/08 - Public inquiry opens into death in prison custody



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