A transgender woman found dead in a male prison did not mean to kill herself and should not have been held in a female jail, a jury has concluded.
Vikki Thompson, a vulnerable 21-year-old who had grown up in and out of care in Keighley, West Yorkshire, was found hanged in her cell in the dark at HMP Leeds on 13 November 2015 after warning several people on her way to jail that she would “leave in a box”, Wakefield coroner’s court heard.
She was in prison after breaching an order relating to a shoplifting conviction and had failed to attend two probation appointments, her partner said.
In January 2015, Thompson had reported three allegations of sexual offences committed between 2007 and 2011, West Yorkshire police said after the inquest’s conclusion. Detectives interviewed three men before her death but no charges were brought.
Shortly after arriving in prison, on 19 October 2015, she complained of bullying, and received a card under her door addressed to “wifey” from another prisoner inviting her to spend the night in his cell.
At her own request, she was placed on a wing of the prison that holds the most vulnerable inmates. She was put on suicide watch because of a long history of self-harm as well as drug and alcohol abuse, but shortly before her death her risk levels were downgraded and she was checked on only once an hour.
It was between these hourly checks that she hanged herself. The inquest into her death heard that the prison was short-staffed that night. Only one officer was assigned to her wing, working overtime after his day shift, and he had been dealing with numerous fire alarms throughout the evening.
Officers were also struggling to keep control amid an epidemic of spice and other highly addictive forms of synthetic cannabis, smuggled in and taken by many prisoners, the court heard. Traces of drugs were found in Thompson’s blood during the postmortem.
On the night she died, staff wore riot gear to enter a cell in the segregation unit, home to the most dangerous prisoners. By the time Thompson was found, alone in the dark because of a broken light, it was too late to save her life.
The jury concluded unanimously that she had not meant to take her own life. They found that HMP Leeds was the “right” prison for her, despite her partner and one drug treatment nurse at the prison insisting she had said she wanted to be transferred to a female jail.
They said she had been “let down by various departments including the NHS, Leeds community healthcare trust, the prison service and also by her family”.
Prison officers were “under immense pressure, understaffed and working in extremely difficult day-to-day situations”, the jury found.
In their conclusions, they said: “Although all these departments were individually aware of Vikki’s history, the overall co-ordination of her mental and health state was lacking in any form of organisational structure.”
The jury also found that inside HMP Leeds the management of her treatment and state of mind was “lacking in professionalism and inadequate for an individual of such complex issues”.
They said: “Regardless of whether Vikki was feeling high or low in moods and appeared to be coping in prison, more attention should have been paid to her as a transgender woman with mental health issues and a history of self-harming and suicide threats.”
Special attention should have been paid to the frequency of observations in her cell, the jury concluded: “On the night of Vikki’s death these observations were inadequate, [and] although this is no fault of one individual, more regular observations with a more determined effort to make contact with Vikki may have prevented her death.”
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “This is a tragic case and our thoughts are with Vikki Thompson’s family and friends. We recognise that there were failings in her care, and HMP Leeds has already put in place a number of measures to better support offenders following the PPO (Prisons and Probation Ombudsman) investigation. We will now carefully consider the findings of the inquest.”
Campaigners reacted with disappointment to the news that the jury had found that she was correctly placed in a male prison. Prof Steven Whittle, who co-founded the lobbying organisation Press for Change, which provides legal advice to trans people, said Thompson’s treatment in jail had broken the law and she should have been in a female jail.
“It shouldn’t matter that Vikki hadn’t begun medical treatment for gender reassignment. As far as the Equalities Act is concerned, reassignment is social, not medical, so she should have been treated like any other young woman entering prison. The problem is, prisoners can’t easily make a claim under the Equalities Act,” said Whittle, a professor of equalities law at Manchester Metropolitan University who transitioned 40 years ago.
Deborah Coles, director of the campaign group Inquest, said: “This was a death waiting to happen. A vulnerable, young, transgender woman was sent to a men’s prison despite the risks of abuse and mistreatment. There was little consideration of the gender she had openly identified with for half her life. Leeds prison has the second highest rate of self-inflicted deaths in the country.”
Thompson’s life was short and hard. The jury was told she was named Reece Robert Richard Thompson when she was born in February 1994 in Keighley. She was just a few months old when she was first taken into care after being found with bruises on her face and fingermarks on her hand.
Social workers thought her mother, Lisa Harrison, an alcoholic, was the culprit. She denied it, telling the jury at her daughter’s inquest that she could not possibly have done it because she only has three fingers on one hand. But Harrison admitted she had been “horrible” when Thompson, aged 10 or 11, started dressing in girls’ clothes and said she was not a boy.
The court heard that aged 12, Thompson lost her virginity to a male friend of her aunt’s. Social services intervened again and she was sent to foster carers in Newark. She never really knew her father, who died when she was young. “He only wanted to know about Vikki when he was drunk,” Harrison told the court.
Aged 17, she changed her name to Vikki Louise Angie Jade Thompson. Everyone in Keighley knew her as a woman. She never began gender reassignment treatment; doctors had advised she needed to tackle her drug and alcohol problems before she began to transition. She had never applied for a gender recognition certificate, which is why she was sent to a male prison as per prison guidelines.
Bob Steele, her partner of several years, told the court Thompson had wanted to be transferred to a female jail. “She classed herself as female,” he said.
The coroner read out a letter Thompson sent to Steele from her cell. “I just feel like I won’t be here no more. I don’t know when I’m getting out of here, my head is fucked so I know I’m going to do something silly. I don’t want to but I can’t do this,” she wrote.
He admitted the pair both took drugs but said Thompson was “getting her life back on track” when she was sent to jail for the final time.
Other witnesses called to give evidence to the inquest insisted Thompson preferred being in a male prison. Alex Boocock, one of her friends in HMP Leeds, said she believed she was “treated as a god” and would not get special treatment in a female prison. Poul Sorensen, then the equalities officer, said he had asked her if she wanted to try to transfer and she had said no, because female prisoners would be “bitchy”.
Thompson was told if she wanted to apply for a transfer she would need to write to the prison governor. She never did.
The inquest heard that HMP Leeds tried to accommodate Thompson as a transgender woman. She was allowed to shower alone, and could shave regularly as well as curl her hair, but was reprimanded when she fashioned her prison jumper into a crop top. When her body was found she was wearing a bra stuffed with socks.
Thompson is one of a long line of prisoners to take their own lives at HMP Leeds. Over the past five years there have been 14 self-inflicted deaths at the prison and a total of 33 since 1993, according to Minton Morrill Solicitors, who represented her family at the inquest.
During the 17-month period following her death, another five prisoners died there at their own hands.
• In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.