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Mother Sues Private Prison Operator Following Drugs Death in Custody

The prevalence of potentially lethal psychoactive drugs in the UK prison system is sadly well known. In the context of a mother's claim that the circumstances of her son's death in custody amounted to a violation of human rights, the High Court considered the extent of a private prison operator's duty to tackle the problem.

The young man was found unconscious in his cell and could not be revived. A post-mortem report concluded that his use of a synthetic cannabinoid was likely to have caused his death. There were indications that he had received drugs from another cell via the prison's plumbing system.

His mother launched proceedings against the private company that operated the prison under a contract with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). She pointed to, amongst other things, a letter from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons which expressed shock at the blatant use and trafficking of illegal drugs within the prison and the apparent unpreparedness of staff to deal with the issue.

She asserted that the operator was or ought to have been aware that the ingress of drugs into the prison posed a foreseeable risk of injury or death to prisoners. It had, she argued, failed in its duty to take urgent and reasonable measures to reduce the influx of drugs. She contended that, as a result, her son and other vulnerable prisoners were detained in an environment in which they were surrounded by illicit substances that posed a risk to their lives.

The operator denied liability and applied for the mother's claim to be struck out, or for summary judgment to be entered in its favour. It argued, amongst other things, that its degree of control over the prison was constrained by the terms of its contract. Its management of the prison was overseen by civil servants and the primary duty to maintain safety at the prison rested on the MoJ.

In dismissing the operator's application, the Court found force in the mother's argument that the fact that her claim might also have been brought against the MoJ was irrelevant. She had a real prospect of successfully establishing that alleged failings on the operator's part breached Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the right to life. The ruling opened the way for her claim to proceed to a full trial.