Prisoner takes his own life at HMP Northumberland during lockdown after denying he was suicidal

Prisoner takes his own life at HMP Northumberland during lockdown after denying he was suicidal

A prisoner who repeatedly denied feeling suicidal has taken his own life in a North East prison, a report into his death has found.

Justin McLelland was found hanged in his cell at HMP Northumberland on October 15, 2021, when the UK was under lockdown restrictions. And despite efforts to bring McLelland to safety, paramedics arrived at the prison and pronounced that he had died.

McLelland had spent six months at Northumberland before he took his life. An independent investigation by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) looking into the circumstances surrounding his death states that he was the fourth prisoner to die from suicide at HMP Northumberland since October 2019 but there were no similarities between the findings in this report and those of the previous deaths.

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McLelland arrived at the Northumberland prison from HMP Durham in April 2021, after being sentenced to two years and two months in prison. The report said he told staff that he was not happy about his sentence but that he was okay.

McLelland had been recalled to Durham because he had breached a restraining order against his ex-partner and had been charged with assault and criminal damage. He had last been released from prison in July 2020.

The report states that McLelland had depression, arthritis and perthes disease which resulted in joint pain. He also had a history of alcohol and cannabis misuse. Upon admission, McLelland was referred to the mental health team and the prison GP continued to prescribe him antidepressants and pain relief medication.

But McLelland told staff that he had no thoughts of suicide or self-harm. He said that he had tried to hang himself a number of years earlier but regretted his actions. He denied substance misuse issues and declined support for misuse.

On April 5, 2021, a mental health nurse assessed McLelland and noted his history of attempted suicide and depression. He denied thoughts of self-harm and was referred to the primary care mental health team. He was also added to a waiting list for psychoeducational sessions to manage his stress.

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A nurse from Durham telephoned a psychological wellbeing practitioner in the mental health team at HMP Northumberland on April 21, 2021, to inform them that McLelland was due to be transferred to Northumberland that day and to brief him about McLelland’s medical records so that Northumberland could plan for his arrival.

McLelland was again examined by a nurse before he left Durham but no concerns were noted. McLelland was transferred to HMP Northumberland shortly afterwards.

The day after he was transferred to Northumberland, a nurse completed a secondary health screening, in which McLelland denied thoughts of suicide. And following a meeting with a Prison Custody Officer (PCO) on April 29, it was noted that McLelland had settled on the wing, engaged positively with staff and had no thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

On May 5, McLelland was moved to Houseblock nine within the prison and on May 13 he told a PCO that he felt settled and safe on his new wing and had no thoughts of suicide or self-harm. This was again echoed in a meeting on June 17 in which he also spoke about his sentence and release date.

On June 18 and 23, a senior psychological wellbeing practitioner tried to review him by phone. On June 18 McLelland did not want to engage and said he was about to leave his cell to mix with the other prisoners and on June 23 the call was disconnected after ringing.

The psychological wellbeing practitioner saw McLelland on July 19 and completed a detailed assessment. It was noted that McLelland was concerned that he had a limited number of telephone numbers on his PIN account, he was unable to concentrate and lacked motivation to exercise or attend to his personal care. The psychological wellbeing practitioner assessment indicated moderate/severe depression and anxiety.

An appointment was made for McLelland to start cognitive behavioural therapy on August 2. But McLelland told wing staff that he could not be bothered to attend and the session was rearranged for August 9.

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When the psychological wellbeing practitioner tried to see McLelland on August 9, he again refused to participate and said that he wanted to be discharged from the service. This was actioned the following day.

On August 23, a PCO phoned McLelland in his cell and completed an education/work assessment. McLelland said that his work history included joinery, bricklaying, plastering and fabricating. He said that he was unsure what he wanted to do when released from prison but was keen to complete courses in prison.

At a key work session on September 14, McLelland said that he felt safe and had no thoughts of self-harm, and in his next meeting on October 9, he told a PCO that nothing had changed since their last meeting. He had no issues, felt safe on the wing and had been allocated a course so he was likely to get a job through this.

On the morning of October 14, when unlocking McLelland’s cell, a PCO noticed that he had smashed his television. McLelland was in bed and the television lay on the cell floor in multiple parts. When the PCO asked McLelland what happened and why the television was broken, he replied “nothing” and pulled the blanket over his head. Staff reported no further concerns that day.

A Night Operational Support Officer (NOSO) completed the wing roll check at 7.45pm and looked through each prisoner’s cell door observation panel. The NOSO reported having no concerns about McLelland when he checked on him.

During the night, the NOSO and a PCO patrolled the wing landings intermittently. Both told the PPO that they heard nothing when they passed McLelland’s cell.

At around 5.35am on October 15, the PCO and the NOSO started the morning roll check on Houseblock nine and found McLelland. The NOSO confirmed that McLelland had no pulse and was extremely pale.

Paramedics arrived and agreed with the PCO and the NOSO’s assessment. They pronounced McLelland’s death at 6.15am.

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A post-mortem examination established that McLelland had died from hanging. No illicit substances were detected in his body. The inquest into McLelland’s death was held in March 2023 and concluded that McLelland’s death was due to suicide.

The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman was satisfied that prison staff could not reasonably have prevented McLelland’s death and made no recommendations.

How to access support if you need it

If this piece has affected you and you want to talk to someone, there are helplines and support groups available, many of them 24/7.

The NHS Choices website lists the following helplines and support networks for people to talk to.

  • Samaritans (116 123 in UK and Ireland) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at [email protected].
  • Childline (0800 1111) runs a helpline for children and young people in the UK. Calls are free and the number won’t show up on your phone bill.
  • PAPYRUS (0800 068 41 41) is a voluntary organisation supporting teenagers and young adults who are feeling suicidal.
  • Mind (0300 123 3393) is a charity based in England providing advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. They campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.
  • Students Against Depression is a website for students who are depressed, have a low mood or are having suicidal thoughts.
  • Bullying UK is a website for both children and adults affected by bullying.
  • If U Care Share is a North East suicide awareness and prevention charity which offers a free and confidential text-support service available by texting IUCS to 85258.
  • June 25, 2023