Hydebank enquiry to focus on handling of alleged inappropriate behaviour

Frances McKeown

Frances McKeown

THE prison governor who has been suspended from duty is under scrutiny over whether an alleged inappropriate incident between one of his officers and a female inmate was properly investigated, The Detail can reveal.

The alleged incident at Hydebank Wood prison is said to have been witnessed by Frances McKeown who took her own life in May last year. There is no suggestion at this stage that the allegation and Frances’s supposed role in it were contributory factors in her death.

The Detail has been investigating Frances’s final few months in Hydebank since February of this year and we have been seeking answers from the Prison Service and the Department of Justice (DOJ) on this specific subject since then.

It is known that Frances was psychologically fragile, had a lengthy history of mental illness stretching back before her incarceration and had threatened many times to take her life.

However in addition to Frances’s emotional difficulties, we have been told that there is an allegation that a male prison officer behaved inappropriately with a female prisoner in her cell some weeks before Frances’s death and that this was witnessed by Frances.

On the 29th of February we sent a request into the Prison Service asking if Frances was involved in any way in an investigation, formal or informal, into a prison officer before she died.

A spokesperson for the DOJ said at the time that it would be “inappropriate to comment while investigations into the circumstances surrounding Ms McKeown’s death are ongoing”.

Today, when we asked similar questions, we were told: “An independent investigation will shortly commence into concerns raised by the Prisoner Ombudsman and it is therefore inappropriate for the NI Prison Service to comment further at this time.”

On Monday it was revealed that governor Gary Alcock of Hydebank Wood prison had been removed from his duties, pending a Prison Service-commissioned investigation. The Detail has learnt that the investigation is focusing on the handling of what was alleged to have been seen by Frances.

The Prisoner Ombudsman’s report into the death of Frances is due to published in July.

Frances, a mother of two, was found dead in the women’s section of Hydebank Prison in May of last year, just 24 hours after the death of male prisoner, Samuel Carson, in another section of the prison.

In a previous article by The Detail, Frances’s long history of mental illness and repeated threats to take her own life came to light.

In an interview with The Detail last May, Frances’s husband, Brian McKeown, launched a scathing attack on the prison service’s treatment of his wife and questioned whether her death would be the last suicide in Northern Ireland’s prisons.

The Prison Service investigation announced on Monday into the handling of the alleged incident involving Frances will take “weeks” to complete.

Meanwhile a spokesperson for the Prison Service has said the suspension of Governor Alcock is “precautionary” and that it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.

An interim senior governor will be appointed to run the prison in the meantime.