Dying on the inside

IssueJuly - August 2008
Feature by Frances Laing

At the time of going to press (and almost a month after she died) the exact cause of Pauline Campbell’s death remains unclear. At her funeral in Whitchurch a former work colleague said simply: “She died of a broken heart”.

Beyond the church and at the cemetery, fellow peace and prison campaigners Joan Meredith and Helen John stood silently holding a single banner. It read “Home Office Responsible for Pauline’s Death”. Helen John explained “Pauline’s life could have been turned around if there had been the slightest sign of movement”. All the work that everyone has done has not been recognised and honoured by the Home Office. Her voice has fallen on deaf ears.
Pauline was a loving mother and a middle-class woman living in a small village in rural Cheshire. What happened to her only child Sarah Elizabeth Campbell was every parent’s nightmare – Sarah survived rape, but then suffered the ravages of drug addiction and self-harm and finally died, aged 19, “in the care of the state” in Styal prison in Cheshire in 2003.
With Sarah’s death Pauline’s life changed completely. She described what happened in the report she wrote for the organisation Inquest on 2 April called Death at the Hands of the State: “I will never forget the cruel way she was treated, and the shock of her death. Until five years ago, I must admit I knew very little about prisons – just that they were not very nice places, and people sometimes died there...
...When Sarah arrived at Styal, she was strip-searched twice, and taken to the segregation/punishment block. The following day, she swallowed a quantity of prescription antidepressant tablets, but then told staff what she had done. Unbelievably, prison staff, including a nurse, walked out of the cell, locked the door and left her alone. There were ‘avoidable delays’ before the prison called an ambulance. When paramedics arrived, they were stopped at the gates for eight minutes before being allowed through. Sarah was unconscious when they reached her...
In 2005 the jury did not return a suicide verdict, because it was clear Sarah had not intended to die. The jury did say though that a “failure in the duty of care” contributed to her death. In 2006 the Home Office accepted full liability for her death, and admitted her human rights were violated under the European Convention on Human Rights. Shamefully there was no apology for the death of my only child”.
Inquest Pauline’s work with Inquest started just a few weeks after Sarah died. It began as her way of holding the government to account for the death of her daughter. Inquest is the only organisation in England and Wales which provides a specialist, comprehensive advice service on contentious deaths and their investigation to bereaved people, lawyers, other advice and support agencies, the media, parliamentarians and the wider public.
Pauline contributed to the research report Dying on the Inside (2008) which provides a comprehensive examination of their casework on women’s deaths in prison from 1990-2007. The way in which Sarah died was not unusual. The report charts a massive increase in self-inflicted deaths and the meltdown of the women’s prison system.
Pauline also worked closely with other bereaved families and the organisation United Friends and Family. The report of their ninth annual march held in 2007 shows her solidarity.
“Upon arriving at Downing Street the silent procession became a noisy explosion of anger led by Janet Alder whose brother Christopher suffocated on the floor of Hull Police Station, while officers made fun of him. The police attempted to enforce the SOCPA ban on megaphones. So Pauline Campbell took hold of the mic to remind them that she had been arrested 14 times and that previous attempts to prosecute her had failed miserably. The megaphone remained in use for the rest of the event.” (Indymedia)

Direct action

Frances Brooke of the Howard League has called her “a suffragette for penal reform”. It’s a little known fact that the direct action Pauline became best known for had its roots in the peace movement. Joan Meredith remembers:
“She came to see me in the August (2003), and she was telling me about all that she had done. She had already been on Newsnight, written letters, written to newspapers and she was beginning to feel she was getting nowhere. She was feeling as if she was banging her head against a brick wall. So I told her about Trident Ploughshares - and she was interested. It was only after the first vigil in the January of 2004, Sarah had been dead a year, that she made up her mind what she wanted to do. I told her what we did, and how we had come to take direct action...we felt that we’d reached a point where we had to do something”.
Every time a woman died in prison, Pauline would be there, with supporters, symbolically stopping the prison vans on the grounds that a woman had died in the “care” of the prison, and therefore it was not safe to bring further prisoners to that jail. Who will do this job now? At Pauline Campbell’s funeral service, held in Whitchurch last month, many tributes were made, including this from Nikki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes:
“She opposed any measure which would result in any women being imprisoned. As a member of the Safety First Coalition which we coordinate, she spoke forcefully against the compulsory rehabilitation of sex workers, which was part of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. Her lobbying helped us defeat those clauses in that bill. We loved her. If her commitment to justice was an ‘obsession’ it was the kind of obsession we need more of – an antidote to the cowardly, uncaring and defeated approach of so many professionals. She set a standard to live by.”
There are other important questions to answer about how the work Pauline did will be documented. Where is her computer? Do the police still have it along with historically important information about this woman’s life?
The justice movement stays with us, and the hope that the powerful alliances Pauline helped to build – reaching across human rights and peace movements – will re-emerge in a new form, stronger than ever.