Mum jailed for shoplifting shampoo and cheese took own life after cries for help ignored

An inquest has found Christine McDonald died by suicide contributed by neglect at HMP Styal in Cheshire in March 2019
-Credit: (Image: INQUEST / Christine McDonald family)

A mum took her own life in prison just two days after being locked up for minor shoplifting offences including stealing shampoo and cheese. Christine McDonald, 55, killed herself at Styal Prison in Cheshire

She was discovered unresponsive in her jail cell on March 2, 2019. An inquest at Cheshire Coroners' Court concluded that prison staff's neglect contributed to her death, as they disregarded vital healthcare guidelines.

The grieving daughter of Ms McDonald, Cheri, expressed her sorrow and disappointment with the negligence, stating: "The prison and healthcare staff had a responsibility and duty of care to at the very least ensure she remained alive they did not do this."

The inquest heard Ms McDonald was sentenced to the all-female prison due to minor shoplifting offences and because she failed to follow a community requirement attached to a suspended sentence.

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Struggling with an opiate addiction, she was apprehended alongside her other daughter, Kristy, who severely injured herself falling from a third-floor window. Upon admission into Styal Prison on March 1. 2019, she displayed signs of anxiety and withdrawal symptoms, which were intensified by her concern for her hurt daughter, reports Liverpool Echo.

According to evidence presented, opiate dependency is a severe health problem where rapid detoxification should be evaded, with additional oversight required for those undergoing withdrawal. Christine McDonald demonstrated significant symptoms of withdrawal and low mental wellbeing.

On March 2, she was taken to Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester following concerns raised during a health assessment at the prison. She was later returned to HMP Styal.

The jury heard that her drug dependency records were not reviewed and information about her daughter's welfare was not communicated. Upon her return to the hospital, the prison should have carried out a clinical assessment and ensured additional overnight observations were implemented.

It was revealed at the inquest that two prison officers found her in her cell around 11pm. She had a pulse and was rushed back to Wythenshawe Hospital.

Evidence presented at the inquest indicated that Ms McDonald had asked for a nurse half an hour before she was discovered, but her request was not met by prison officers. She was declared dead the next day, with her family by her side.

The jury concluded there was significant neglect in the care provided to Ms McDonald, which directly led to her death. The failures identified included: poor communication between healthcare professionals and prison staff; disregard for clinical advice regarding drug dependence treatment; and failure to relay crucial information about her daughter's wellbeing.

Following the inquest's conclusion, Christine McDonald expressed her pain by saying: "My mum was left alone crying out for help dismissed and ignored by staff until she could not longer cope and ended her own suffering...The prison and healthcare staff had a responsibility and duty of care to at the very least ensure she remained alive and they did not do this."

She went on to add: "We will never get over the loss of my mum but I speak out in the hope that this doesn't keep happening and if it does other families realise there are ways to identify and expose any failings and stand against this."

Ms McDonald, a mother to four children, will always be remembered as a person with kindness and love overflowing within her, someone who continually ranked others' needs above hers.

Her death tragically became the 11th instance wherein an individual committed suicide while in jail.

INQUEST's caseworker Jordan Ferdinand-Sargeant made a sobering comment: "Christine was a vulnerable woman in prison for shoplifting small value items: shampoo, bubble bath, hair dye and cheese. Two days later, she was dead. She needed care and support, not a prison sentence."

"Time and time again we see the dangerous and fatal consequences of sending women to prison, not least those with complex needs like Christine. Deaths at Styal prison are at a record high and two self-inflicted deaths in December yet again raise serious questions about women's health and safety."

"We must urgently dismantle prisons and redirect resources to holistic, gender responsive community services. Only then can we end the deaths of women in prison."

In reply, a Prison Service spokesperson said: "Our thoughts remain with the friends and family of Christine McDonald. We are investing £14m to improve safety in women's prisons and strengthening the support provided to those at risk of self-harm and suicide. We will consider the coroner's findings carefully and respond in due course."

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