Irwin Mitchell’s Public Law Team recently acted on behalf of the family of James Best, a prisoner who died in prison whilst being held on remand for stealing a gingerbread man during the 2011 riots.
James, who was aged 37, was detained at HMP Wandsworth awaiting sentence when he collapsed and died of a heart attack in his cell shortly after a workout in the prison gym on 8 September 2011. The coroner recorded a narrative verdict which was critical of the prison, concluding that James’ "suitability to use the gym was insufficiently assessed" and the gym induction procedures were not properly followed, with medical assessments on James’ fitness to attend the gym carried out by fellow prisoners.
James had a history of psychiatric and medical problems, including Crohn’s disease, arthritis and asthma. In accordance with prison service policy he should not have been allowed to use the gym without the approval of healthcare staff. The inquest heard evidence that the gym assessment policy had broken down, with assessment forms being signed by prisoners rather than officers and healthcare referrals not being made.
The jury also found that after James fell ill, staff did not recognise the urgency of his needs, and said the timing of the call for an ambulance may have contributed to his death. The call from the prison to the London Ambulance Service lasted 13 minutes despite an officer telling the London Ambulance Service that James was having difficulty breathing and that the nurse attending to James was screaming for an ambulance. James was declared dead as the paramedics arrived. The delay in their arrival deprived James of the opportunity of their expert assistance.
Nancy Collins, a specialist lawyer at Irwin Mitchell representing James’ family, said: "The circumstances of James’ tragic death are symptomatic of a prison service in crisis. The evidence heard at the inquest shows that James was failed by the prison staff, the prison healthcare staff and the London Ambulance Service. Unless urgent measures are implemented to address those failures there is a very real risk that there will be other avoidable deaths in prison custody."
James’ foster mother, Dolly Daniel, said: "My son and I were devastated by the death in prison of my foster son James Best, whose inquest has just concluded in Westminster. A litany of errors by Wandsworth prison, London Ambulance Service and prison healthcare staff left us distraught. We were fortunate in finding representation in Nancy Collins from Irwin Mitchell who has steered us through the painful and difficult process of preparing and attending James' inquest. We cannot conceive what would have happened had we not had this support.
"We are proud that, with Nancy and her team, we were able to come out of the inquest with a strong verdict supporting our case and highlighting significant shortcomings in James' care. The satisfaction this has given us is already, just within a few days, helping us to feel we have made a difference and ensured James’ death did not pass unnoticed. The comfort this is bringing and will continue to bring is something we will never forget."
Dolly continued: "as a retired NHS Manager I know how difficult it can be to support distressed clients whilst managing expectations as to what can be achieved from an inquiry. At all times Nancy was sympathetic whilst realistic about the process ensuring we were kept aware of procedures, risks and pitfalls as well as likely benefits. We are immensely grateful."
In 2011 inspectors at HMP Wandsworth reported that the prison, which holds over 1,500 prisoners, was branded the most "unsafe" in the country for prisoners. There were 11 deaths at the jail between January 2010 and June 2011, and James’ inquest was the third this year into the death of a prisoner there.
Dolly Daniel says that James was a loving person who her other children looked up to as a hero. However, James "was let down by the justice system, who basically ignored his health issues". Dolly hopes that "procedures can be improved so that no one else has to suffer as we have".
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