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Inquest: Levi Smith killed himself at Elmley Prison in Sheppey after death threats

By Vicky Castle

Prison staff failed to protect a vulnerable man who was suffering severe anxiety when he was found hanged in his prison cell, an inquest heard.

Levi Smith, 41, a member of a Kent-based traveller family who formerly lived in Ashford, died at HMP Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey on November 12, 2014.

A two-week inquest into his death - which began on Wednesday, February 1 at The Archbishop’s Palace, in Maidstone - heard how he had suffered panic attacks after receiving death threats from a members of a rival traveller family also in Elmley.

Levi Smith had only a month of his sentence left when he was found dead in his prison cell
Levi Smith had only a month of his sentence left when he was found dead in his prison cell

The dad, who had just four weeks left of his sentence, was taken to the prison’s healthcare unit suffering from a severe anxiety attack.

A spokesman for Hickman and Rose, the law firm representing his family, said: “Levi had become very concerned about death threats from members of a rival traveller family housed with him.

“His genuine fear manifested itself in a series of panic attacks, some of which resulted in outside hospital treatment.

“Over the next two and a half weeks Levi made numerous attempts to draw the prison’s attention to the risk he faced.

“He also began to commit a number of what were described in evidence as “trivial” offences to engineer his move to the segregation unit out of harm’s way.

“Both national prison policies and local policies in force at HMP Elmley recognised that the behaviour displayed by Levi was characteristic of someone at risk of harm from other prisoners.

HMP Elmley, Sheppey
HMP Elmley, Sheppey

“Despite this, at no stage did the prison implement its own violence reduction strategy, which would have enabled an investigation into Levi’s reports of threats and a support plan to be put in place which ought to have included consideration of where Levi could be safely housed.”

During the inquest the jury also heard evidence about Rule 45 of the Prison Rules 1999, which allows the prison to remove prisoners from association if it is in the interests of good order or discipline or where it is in the prisoner’s own interests.

This status was never granted to Levi Smith, Beth Handley, a solicitor from Hickman and Rose, said: “By failing to guarantee his removal from association with those who had threatened him the prison needlessly created unbearable uncertainty about his safety.

“This was yet another unnecessary tragedy from which his family will struggle to recover.”

Family and friends have hit out at HMP Elmley and say Levi Smith was let down.

Racheal Smith, his older sister, said: “We believe the prison failed Levi, they failed to look after him as they should have done.

The inquest took place at Archbishop's Palace
The inquest took place at Archbishop's Palace

"If they had looked after him and took my mum’s phone call more seriously than they did do, I believe my brother would still be alive today.”

His daughter Rachel said: “We do miss him dearly and not a moment goes by that we don’t think of him. We miss him more than words can say.”

Levi Smith senior, his dad, said: “Wherever I went, my son went with me, he was like my shadow. When Levi went a part of me went with him.”

The jury returned a detailed narrative conclusion, confirming that the failure of a Governor and his staff to segregate a vulnerable prisoner under Rule 45 of the Prison Rules possibly contributed to his death.

They also identified a raft of other failures and shortcomings of the prison but were not required by the Assistant Coroner to determine whether these also contributed to the death.

"If they had looked after him and took my mum’s phone call more seriously than they did do, I believe my brother would still be alive today” - Racheal Smith

Figures from death investigation charity INQUEST show there were four self-inflicted deaths at HMP Elmley in 2014 and a further four at the prison since.

Director Deborah Coles said: “What happened to Levi is another example of a prison system in crisis.

“The shocking fact that there has been four further self-inflicted deaths in the same prison speaks for itself and underlines the urgency for action and accountability.

“There is a disconnect between policies and practice where repeated inquest findings and recommendations are simply not followed.”

The Prison Service and Ministry of Justice were contacted for comment.

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