'Our son died at Parc prison. He was failed by those in charge'

Caroline Jones, stepmother of Christopher Jones
-Credit: (Image: John Myers)

Christopher Jones often had top marks in exams. Even when he hadn't revised, school tests in maths, science and especially English would rarely challenge him. The boy from Carmarthenshire loved playing monopoly with his family, taking his younger siblings for walks in the park, and spending hours on end reading books, especially the Goosebumps horror series.

A lot had changed for Christopher by the age of 38, when he died of a drug overdose at Bridgend's Parc prison. His love of reading had never waned, though. When he read books from the prison library, he had too much respect for them to dog-ear the pages, instead keeping track of his progress by writing the page number on his cell wall. "I don't think that went down well," Christopher's stepmum Caroline Jones told us with a smile tinged with loss.

Before his death in 2018, Christopher had been battling drug addiction for more than two decades. Caroline believes his vices were rooted in trauma from the death of his biological mother Theresa by suicide when he was a child. With Parc facing scrutiny over a series of sudden inmate deaths in recent months — as well as rioting, serious violence and allegations of corruption and rampant drug-dealing — Caroline says the humanity of prisoners should not be forgotten, and they must not be seen as statistics.

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An inquest found serious failings by the jail — which is run by private security giant G4S — may have contributed to Christopher's death, but one of the most galling things for his family is that the prison, they believe, has not learned lessons from those failings. Caroline feels that "in the long run it didn't make a blind bit of difference". A G4S spokesperson said in response: "Our thoughts remain with the family and friends of Mr Christopher Jones. Following Mr Jones's death we implemented an action plan addressing the learnings and recommendations in the [prisons ombudsman] report, which we fully accept. These have since been implemented across the prison."

Caroline, 61, who is married to Christopher's father Andrew, got to know Christopher when he was four years old. At that time he and his brother Richard were living with their mother Theresa, who took her own life when Christopher was 10 years old. The two brothers then went to live with their father and Caroline in the village of Tumble, near Llanelli. But while Richard responded well to counselling, it was harder for Christopher to process his grief. "For the first couple of years it was childhood mischief," said Caroline. "But then we started to notice he'd come into the house glassy-eyed. He didn't like any sort of authority, he didn't like rules on being home by a certain time."

Christopher Jones, who died at Parc prison in 2018
Christopher Jones -Credit:John Myers

In his early years at secondary school, Ysgol y Gwendraeth in Drefach, Christopher proved himself gifted in a wide range of subjects. He loved science as well as the escapism of reading fiction for hours. "Through everything, he was always a very caring boy," said Caroline. "He was very sociable. He would go to the park with my children, his half-siblings, to play for an hour, not because he was told to, but because he wanted to do it. My husband would take Christopher and his cousins trail-riding on a scrambler bike, which they'd all have a go on — I was told to stay home because I'd get worried."

By the age of about 14, Christopher was dabbling in solvent abuse. Soon afterwards he started stealing and running away. He never took his GCSEs. When he was about 16, he spent three months in a London rehab clinic. "We spoke on the phone, and he was looking forward to coming home and getting a job," said Caroline. "Within six weeks of coming back he was back on the drugs. He wasn't happy unless he had taken something. We thought it was to do with the loss of his mother and helping block things out, but we could never get him to talk about it."

By his late teens Christopher was using heroin and in the grip of a pattern of behaviour that would define the rest of his life — constantly in and out of prison, mostly funding his addiction through petty crime like shoplifting. Despite his dislike of rules, the idea of jail had never fazed Christopher. His favourite film when growing up had been the Ray Winstone borstal drama Scum, and there seemed to be elements of prison life that "fascinated" him, said Caroline. "It was strange. Nothing we said would sink in. We told him that if he ended up in prison we were not going to visit him. When he came out, we would see him. We'd say, 'Our door is always open, and we will help you any way we can, but you have to be prepared to help yourself as well.

"Every time he came out of prison we'd try to meet up. But we'd go to visit him and he'd be on something or there'd be drug people at his flat, so we'd tell him we'd see him another time. It affects your whole life. You have a feeling that's always in the back of your head: 'Is there anything we could do differently?' Just before he last went into prison, we had coffee in a cafe in Llanelli. Like he always would, he was asking how all the family were, he was saying he wanted to get clean and get a job."

Such conversations would always be followed by more crime to support Christopher's addiction. His final jail term, which was for burglary, started in HMP Swansea — where according to a prisons ombudsman report he completed a rapid detox — before he was transferred to Parc in August 2018. In Parc he was repeatedly able to obtain psychoactive drugs like spice and was found under their influence on multiple occasions.

In early November that year, Christopher told a manager he was unhappy because of a lack of contact with his girlfriend. According to the report, the security team had confiscated letters from her after finding the hallucinogen LSD on three of them. Christopher asked staff for a photocopy of the letters so he could read them, but the report said they refused to provide this.

On the evening of November 18, a prison officer found Christopher sitting on his bed at 6.02pm. He was leaning forward and unresponsive. The report said there was "an unacceptable delay of nearly 20 minutes" before an emergency code was called, even though Mr Jones was under self-harm monitoring at the time. There was then "a further unacceptable delay" in staff bringing a defibrillator, which did not arrive at the cell until 6.30pm, said the ombudsman.

The officer who discovered Christopher on the bed was asked to explain his delayed response. He said he thought the prisoner was "just ignoring" him. CCTV footage showed he had returned to Christopher's cell at 6.10pm, 6.13pm and 6.16pm. "On each occasion, the prison custody officer said that he tried to get Mr Jones to respond to him for around a minute or so before leaving, and returning to try again," the report reads. "During this time, the prison custody officer again contacted the control room to tell them that Mr Jones had still not responded. He said that the control room instructed him to keep trying."

It was not until 6.20pm that a medical emergency code blue was called. The defibrillator was delayed for another 10 minutes because, according to a prison officer, "it had taken longer to find one as it was not in the usual place". An inquest jury found Christopher died from taking a psychoactive substance. But their verdict added that "failure to call code blue when first found unresponsive could possibly have caused his death". It was noted in the report that in the 12 months before Mr Jones' death, two other Parc prisoners had died after taking psychoactive drugs. Another inmate took his own life just four days after Mr Jones died, again having taken the same kind of drug.

Christopher's family had to wait five years for answers from the inquest. Caroline said: "There was one young woman at the inquest, a counsellor at the prison who talked about how Christopher liked reading. After giving evidence she came running over to me and gave me a hug, saying: 'I am so sorry for what's happened Mrs Jones.' It was heartfelt. But she was the only one to say sorry. The officer who found Christopher and failed to help him couldn't look us in the eye.

"The prison knew he was a drug user and he was still getting the drugs willy-nilly. You expect things to happen on the outside. We thought we didn't have to worry when he went into prison. How naive we were. Everything we'd said they failed on, the coroner agreed, but the inquest to me was all about hoping the outcome would save others' lives. That hasn't happened. In the long run it didn't make a blind bit of difference."

This week we reported that two inmates at Parc had on Wednesday night survived overdoses of a drug suspected to be spice. That came one day after Parc director Heather Whitehead left by mutual agreement following rioting at the jail and 10 sudden inmate deaths in just over three months. She was replaced by Will Styles, who previously ran another G4S jail, HMP Five Wells in Northamptonshire. G4S said the decision was "not in response to any one single incident".

Last month the Tory prisons minister Edward Argar said four of the recent sudden deaths at Parc were believed to be drug-related, four were not, and one was "potentially so". He described Parc as a "safe" prison, adding: "We have no current plans to routinely scan or take the powers to scan prison officers." But recent Parc employees have claimed the vast majority of drugs are brought in by staff. Police recently arrested a Parc employee on suspicion of smuggling in contraband.

Caroline Jones, stepmother of Christopher Jones
Christopher Jones, left, as a child with his brother Richard

Reacting to the minister's comments, Caroline said: "Is Parc safe? I don't think you would like to hear my reaction to that. Edward Argar is in cuckoo land. I think he wants to go round to all the families of people who've lost loved ones there. Prison is a punishment — there's a reason people are in there, and you hope they come out a better person — but while they're under that regime they're still under a duty of care, which is not being met. Everyone, whether it's staff, solicitors, visitors, everyone should be searched. There's so much they can do and they are failing."

There are growing calls from Welsh politicians for G4S to be stripped of its £400million contract. Lesley Griffiths MS, the Labour cabinet secretary for social justice, said on Wednesday that she does not believe "profits should feature in the running of prisons anywhere in the UK" and that she would be making the case to the UK Government that justice should be devolved to Wales. "I've been in post around 10 or 11 weeks, and every week it seems to me there is something [happening at Parc] that concerns me, and the UK Government really need to get to grips with this," she added.

G4S said Christopher Jones declined drug support while in prison and was warned of the dangers of drug abuse. Since his death, training has been provided to staff on self-harm monitoring and there are daily checks to ensure defibrillators are in the right place. The firm added that it regularly X-rays bags and searches visitors entering Parc.

Although Mr Argar told Parliament that the contract "continues to perform well", he did say the UK Government has issued an improvement notice on G4S for urgent action on Parc's security. A G4S spokesperson said: "We are actively tackling the multiple ways that drugs enter the prison from the wider community while continuously strengthening our security measures to protect prisoners from these dangerous substances."

If you would like to speak to WalesOnline about an issue at Parc prison, email us at conor.gogarty@walesonline.co.uk