Obituary: Pauline Campbell

Tireless crusader against prison deaths

The death, at the age of 60, of Pauline Campbell marks the end of the single most dedicated and vociferous campaign for the cause of women in prison of recent years. That her body was found at her daughter's graveside adds a poignant postscript to her untimely end. For it was the death, in January 2003, of Sarah, her only child, that ignited the torch Pauline was to carry tirelessly and with great courage for the next five years.

Before Sarah's death, Pauline, by her own account, was living a normal life in the village of Malpas, Cheshire. The former college lecturer, born in north Wales, doted on her daughter, a talented artist, pianist and local tennis champion. Sarah's father had left when she was four, and she was sexually abused as a child by a distant relative. When she was 15, she was raped, became clinically depressed and started taking drugs. By the age of 17, she was a self-harming heroin addict and, at Chester crown court, was convicted of the manslaughter of pensioner Amrit Bhandari, who suffered a heart attack on a Chester street while being hassled for money by Sarah and a fellow addict.

Sarah was jailed for three years and was sent to Styal prison, near Wilmslow, Cheshire. Because she had given evidence against the co-accused, she asked to be placed on a vulnerable prisoners wing, but instead was taken to the segregation unit, where she died the following day after swallowing a quantity of prescription drugs. Just a few days short of her 19th birthday, she became the youngest of the six women who were to die at the Cheshire jail in a 12-month period. Returning a narrative verdict, an inquest jury concluded that a failure in the duty of care contributed to her death.

In 2004, Pauline began to undertake direct action against the increasing number of deaths of women in custody. Whenever a woman died in prison in England and Wales, she held a demonstration outside the prison gates. When a van arrived with new inmates, she blocked its entrance and asked the driver to take the women to a place of safety. The police were usually called. In all, Pauline arranged 28 such demonstrations. She was arrested 15 times and charged with public order offences on five occasions, but was never convicted.

She constantly emailed journalists, reformers, politicians and indeed anybody she came into contact with, keeping them informed of her latest moves and the state of women in prison. In total, 41 women have died, apparently at their own hands, since Sarah's death in 2003. In 2005, Pauline's campaigning won her the individual award of the Emma Humphreys memorial prize organisation, for "highlighting the distressing reality of women's lives and deaths in prison".

Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, the charity that focuses on contentious deaths and their investigation, with which Pauline worked closely, paid tribute to her endless generosity in comforting the families of other women who had died in custody. She said that Pauline's death should remind everyone, not just about the many unnecessary and preventable deaths of women in prison, but also of the impact on the families they leave behind.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said that Pauline's courageous voice will live on for as long as injustice remains in our society.

When the Guardian's Simon Hatten-stone interviewed her in 2006, he noted that her house was carpeted with photocopied campaigning literature and Sarah's bedroom was unchanged from her last day at home - with clothes, paintings and make-up scattered everywhere. "It was heartbreaking," he said. "The house mirrored Pauline's state of mind after Sarah's death. She would apologise for its state and explain that she used to be a cleaning obsessive, but now there simply wasn't time."

· Pauline Campbell, prison reform campaigner, born January 20 1948; died May 15 2008


Eric Allison

The GuardianTramp

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