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Cleaner died from heatstroke in Westminster Magistrates’ Court cell

Broken air conditioning was not fixed for weeks and created temperatures 'significantly higher than the maximum allowable'

05 July, 2019 — By Tom Foot

Defendants were left to swelter while courtrooms were cooled

A DAMNING report has blasted the Ministry of Justice after a cleaner died from heatstroke in Westminster’s flagship magistrates’ court.

Rafal Sochacki, 43, was held for five hours in a cell in the court in Marylebone Road on one of the hottest days of 2017, an investigation revealed this week.

Faulty air-conditioning caused his cell temperature to rise “significantly higher than the maximum allowable”. Portable coolers had been brought into courtrooms that day, June 21, but in the cells temperatures had reached around 40 degrees, far higher than the recommended limit of 26. Investigators said touching the cell door was “like opening an oven”.

Deborah Coles, director of INQUEST, said: “This shocking and preventable death must send alarm bells across the criminal justice system. That a vulnerable man in the care of the state can overheat to death is outrageous.”

Details of the scandal were revealed by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Sue McAllister, in this week’s report.

It said: “Mr Sochacki died of cardiovascular col- lapse caused by hyperthermia (severe heatstroke) and  hypertensive heart disease… The circumstances of Mr Sochacki’s death are very disturbing.”

Outlining the details, she added: “Westminster Magistrates’ Court’s air- conditioning was not working, not only in the court rooms but also in the court’s basement custody suite, where court defendants were kept in sealed cells with no natural ventilation.

“This had been report- ed to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service and the investigator was told that the air-conditioning had not been working in the court building for several weeks.

“Although the portable air-conditioning units provided some relief to staff in the custody suite, they provided no relief to defendants held in the court cells because of the location and design of the cells and because the cell doors were not left open for security reasons.

“Consequently, Mr Sochacki and other prisoners were held behind sealed cell doors in excessively hot and  humid cells. According to the police, the temperature in Mr Sochacki’s cell was 30°C at 9.00pm on 21 June, and they estimated that the temperature was between 34°C and 40°C when he died.

“The temperature in the cell was therefore significantly higher than the maximum allowable temperature of 26°C. This was unacceptable. The investigator witnessed these conditions himself during his visit to the cells two days after Mr Sochacki’s death and staff also described such conditions, with one saying that opening a cell door was like opening an oven door.

“Although the mobile air-conditioning units had been installed and provided some relief to staff working in the custody suite, they did nothing to alleviate the very high temperatures that Mr Sochacki and other prisoners experi- enced in the court cells that day.”

The private prison service contractor, Serco, was also criticised in the report for holding Mr Sochacki in an escort vehicle outside Charing Cross police station. He had been arrested under “serious charges”, according to police.

The report added: “A detainee in the neighbouring cell said that Mr Sochacki was banging his cell door, screaming and shouting at the top of his voice and that this had continued for about half an hour.

“He described Mr Sochacki as ‘going crazy’ and said that other detainees were shouting at him to be quiet. He said that he later heard staff say that Mr Sochacki was going to faint and, although he could not see him, assumed he must have felt unwell.”

A Ministry of Justice statement said: “Lessons have been learnt from this tragic incident. We have established clear procedures when court cells reach set tem- peratures and when there are excessive delays in collections, and all of our buildings now have ready access to a defibrillator.”

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