Serco fined £2,250,000 after custody officer kicked to death by prisoner

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  • May 26, 2023
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Security contractor Serco has been fined £2,250,000 for health and safety failings that led to a prisoner kicking one of its custody officers to death.

Humphrey Burke, 29, attacked 54-year-old Lorraine Barwell as she escorted him out of his cell in Blackfriars Crown Court in London in June 2015.

Burke, who was due to be sentenced for arson and attempted robbery, fell to the floor outside of his cell. During a brief scuffle, he kicked Barwelll twice in the head.

Custody officer Gia Sofokli, standing just feet away, said it ‘looked like a footballer kicking a football really hard’.

Barwell, a grandmother and a custody officer of 10 years, died of catastrophic brain injuries two days later.

In January last year, the Old Bailey handed Burke an indefinite hospital order after he admitted manslaughter by diminished responsibility.

Serco, a government security contractor, pleaded guilty last April to failing to discharge general health, safety and welfare duties from January 2014 to March 2017.

Prosecutors said that two attacks took place against custody officers within that period – one against Barwell and another against Bernadette Cawley.

Both episodes, they argued in the Old Bailey, demonstrated what happens if health and safety steps are not taken.

They were part of a wider pattern of failings in areas including risk assessment, staffing levels, training and monitoring uncovered by the workplace safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Gordon Menzies, prosecuting, said that custody staff had ‘no idea what they were dealing with’ when it came to Burke.

‘In January 2015 Mr Burke was identified as being a risk to staff,’ he said.

‘He was someone described as aggressive and ready to launch an attack at anyone opening his cell. He was identified as someone who could lash out for no reason and you could not read him or know how he would react.

‘It is accepted on behalf of the defence that that information was not adequately conveyed to the people who needed to know.

‘The prosecution case is that they simply had no idea what they were dealing with.

‘Ms Barwell raised concerns about what was being asked of staff. Nothing was done by Serco in response to what she raised.’

A year after Burke beat Barwell, a prisoner strangled and pushed custody officer Cawley against a wall in a dock at Woolwich Crown Court, southeast London, in June 2016.

No other staff were around to help Cawley even after she pushed the alarm. She survived the attack.

Serco admitted two limited breaches to the two incidents but denied they were ‘causative’ of the harm to the women.

Sentencing Serco today, Judge Jeremy Baker said that while the company is contracted by the Ministry of Justice, it was up to it to ensure a ‘safe working environment’.

There was ‘inadequate communication’ when it came to telling staff about the risk Burke posed.

‘I am satisfied that had it not been for Serco’s breach of duty towards its employees, Lorraine Barwell would not have died in the circumstances in which she did at Blackfriars Crown Court on June 29 2015,’ he added.

He fined Serco £2,250,000 and ordered the firm to pay the HSE £433,596.

HSE inspector Helen Donnelly said the company ‘drastically failed in their duties to protect’ staff.

‘Had Serco carried out their legal duties, these incidents could have been prevented,’ she said.

Anthony Kirby, Serco’s chief executive for the UK and Europe, said staff health and safety is the company’s ‘highest priority’.

‘Everyone in Serco was deeply shocked and saddened when Lorraine was fatally assaulted by Humphrey Burke in 2015 and we continue to send our deepest condolences to her family and friends,’ he said.

‘Lorraine was a brave and experienced prisoner custody officer who was a popular and highly respected member of our team and had worked for Serco for over 10 years.

‘She is still sorely missed by her colleagues and everyone across Serco.’

For Barwell’s daughter, Louise Grennan, she not only lost her mother but her ‘best friend’ too.

‘Our mum was a wonderful loving supportive mother to myself, my brother and her two granddaughters whom she adored and loved, and they adored her,’ she said in a victim statement.

‘To lose her has left a huge void in everyone’s hearts,’ Grennan said, adding: ‘We spoke about plans to move abroad to live in the sun once mum had retired from work.

‘That has all gone now.’

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