A mentally ill man who killed himself less than 24 hours after arriving in prison was given a health check lasting just 96 seconds through the hatch of his cell door amid Covid fears.
Luke Clarke, 38, was arrested by Metropolitan Police officers at the start of the Covid pandemic on April 5, 2020 and transferred to Wormwood Scrubs prison.
The nurse who saw him asked for more robust PPE because staff feared Mr Clarke had Covid and was spitting on staff. However, as no data was available, she was told to do her assessment via the cell panel.
An inquest found that fear and confusion caused by Covid-19, as well as inadequate care from prison staff, contributed to his death.
His family described him as a “loving, kind, funny and caring” person and welcomed the jury’s finding that failures at Wormwood Scrubs prison contributed to Mr Clarke’s suicide. They called for better communication between hospitals and prisons on mental health and said: “We hope Luke’s death is not in vain.”
Mr Clarke had a history of paranoid schizophrenia, had been hospitalized on several occasions and had a history of suicide attempts. He was taken under police custody to St Bernard’s Hospital in Ealing in 2020, with an officer suspecting Mr Clarke was having a psychotic episode.
Nevertheless, psychiatrists and police decided Mr Clarke did not need to be detained under the Mental Health Act and should be sent to prison. He had been licensed for common assault and violated the conditions of his license.
Suspecting he may have Covid, Mr Clarke was taken to the Covid-19 unit at Wormwood Scrubs. A form asking questions about suicide and self-harm was not completed and he had very little support.
The inquest jury said: “Luke was isolated in his cell with very minimal human interaction and no food during his almost 24-hour stay.” They said there were, among other things, deficiencies in his night care, admissions and hospital liaison and prison was established.
They said that “the brevity of the prison nurse’s interaction with Luke was inadequate” and also criticized senior prison staff for making no attempt to complete the investigation.
The nurse conducted the reception assessment, which included questions about his mental health, through the hatch of his cell door. The assessment lasted a maximum of one minute and 36 seconds, CCTV footage shown in court showed.
She said Mr Clarke refused to speak to her unless he unlocked the door and was able to speak to her in person, as was normal procedure. She said she was advised that a surgical face mask, gloves and a disposable apron were the appropriate PPE for the exam and were available for use.
However, she requested a face shield, goggles and a gown that covered the neck to the knees because the patient spit on the staff. Since none was available, a health manager told her to do the exam through the cell door.
She said Mr Clarke “became very irritable and said: ‘I want to be seen as an ordinary person, you open the door and sit with me in the cell or in the office'”. He then refused to speak to her.
Within hours, Mr Clarke took his own life – one of 12 prison suicides in the last five years.
A spokesman for the charity Inquest said: “Luke was taken to prison and was dead within 24 hours. “He needed care and support for his mental health, not criminalisation.
“Luke has been neglected by a prison that has a long history of failing to protect the health and welfare of those who owe a duty of care.”
The Ministry of Justice has been contacted for comment.
If you are experiencing feelings of distress or struggling to cope, you can speak confidentially to the Samaritans on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Samaritan Visit the website for details of the branch nearest you.
If you are a U.S. resident and you or someone you know needs mental health help right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you are in another country, you can go there www.befrienders.org to find a hotline near you.