Doncaster Prison told to deal with 'drug taking and bullying' after debt-ridden addict inmate took own life

Opioid addict Ben Barton -Credit:SYP

An opioid addict committed suicide in Doncaster Prison after he found himself in debt for 18 cans of mackerel and four packs of vapes.

Prison staff were told to look out for signs of 'drug taking and bullying' at the prison, by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. The ombudsman has instructed the prison director of HMP Doncaster, in Marsh Gate, run by multinational private company Serco, to schedule a Drug Diagnostic Visit (DDV).

This would involve a peer review of the prison's drug strategy to identify the main weaknesses and how to challenge them. They were also told to encourage staff to 'identify and record signs of possible drug taking and bullying' after identifying historical issues at the prison.

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These instructions comes after the death of Ben Barton, 33, who hanged himself in his prison cell and died in hospital three days later on January 13, 2023. Barton was a repeat offender, from Sheffield, who had been recalled to prison in December 2022, charged with further offences of assault, threats to kill and criminal damage.

Serco described Barton's 'self-inflicted' death as a 'tragedy,' offering condolences to his family. The multinational added eradicating drug use in prisons is 'extremely challenging'. The company said that independent inspectors had told them the availability of drugs had 'reduced' and supported the prison's strategy. It added they'd run a Drug Strategy Workshop at the prison, in lieu of the DDV.

The ombudsman's report reveals that Barton was an opioid addict, and had been taking the drug Subutex in prison. Barton's cellmate told the investigator to support his Subutex habit, Barton would order a lot of goods from the prison shop, and then use all these goods to pay off his debt. His cellmate added that Barton owed 18 cans of mackerel to one prisoner and four packs of vapes to another, at the time of his death.

HMP Doncaster
HMP Doncaster -Credit:Google Street View

In the days leading up to his suicide, the 33-year-old had almost maxed out his money account, spending more than £15 on eight tins of mackerel. He then made several calls to his family, desperately demanding money.

Barton eventually took his own life. Paramedics established he still had a heartbeat so he was rushed to hospital where he was sedated and put on a ventilator. Three days later it was determined that Barton was brain dead. His life support was switched off later that day.

Barton's drug debts only became known to prison staff after his death. The ombudsman looking into Barton's death found in previous investigations that 'drug taking and bullying' were an issue at the prison and 'drugs clearly remain an issue at Doncaster'. The report recommended that managers should 'encourage staff to identify and record signs of possible drug taking and bullying,' going forward.

Since 2020, four of Doncaster's 26 prisoners deaths were drug related and and six were self-inflicted. A group of unpaid volunteers from the community, an an Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), highlighted that 'there was drug use in the prison, which created acute and longer-term health issues and, at its most severe, could be an immediate risk to life'.

The volunteer group did add, however, both routine and targeted security measures were in place at the prison, and they were supportive of the prison’s drug strategy.

The ombudsman Adrian Usher noted that the prison director had not scheduled a DDV at the time of the report, in December 2023, which was about 11 months after Barton's death. Mr Usher concluded in his report: "The director should commission a Drug Diagnostic Visit to identify potential weaknesses in Doncaster's drug strategy and how best to address them."

'A tragedy,' says Serco

John Hewitson, Serco Prison Director at HMP Doncaster, said: “Any self inflicted death in a prison is a tragedy and our thoughts are with Mr Barton’s family and friends. A Coroner’s Inquest was held into the death in April and the jury found no failings on the part of Serco or our staff.

"As in all prisons, eradicating drug use is extremely challenging and while the independent Inspectors have noted that the availability of drugs has reduced and they support our strategy, we recognise that we have more to do and we are working hard to improve the situation.”

Serco has stated an inquest jury found no failings on the part of Serco or its staff, and has held a Drug Strategy Workshop that included HMP Doncaster and the other prisons that they manage.

There was no evidence of any involvement in his death of any drug usage or bullying, the company went on. When Barton arrived at the prison on December 6, 2022, he told officers that he had no current thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Although, he did mention to the nurse he had attempted to take his own life in the past, when he attempted to overdose on paracetamol in 2019.

Officers told Barton to refer himself to the mental health team. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Barton did so. He had very low level debt and would not have told officers about it, according to Serco. Barton told one of the officers that he felt safe on the wing, his general health was good, and he had no issues with debt or housing.

The ombudsman states that HM Inspectorate of Prisons reported that the availability of drugs seemed to have reduced at Doncaster, although he acknowledged that they also said that there still appears to be a drug problem.

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