In this article:

If someone close to you is in prison and is terminally ill, or has recently passed away, this article will give you some information on what will happen next. 

To help give you a better idea of what to expect when someone dies in prison, we’ll take you through what happens to the person’s body, who you’ll speak to, when to start making funeral arrangements, and what help you can get if you have any questions or concerns about the care your loved one received while in prison.

Can you visit someone who’s dying in prison? 

It’s possible for you and other family members to visit your loved one in prison when they’re receiving end-of-life care. But this will depend on their specific circumstances. Speak with your family liaison officer about what’s possible. You might be able to visit them more often or make more frequent calls. But if this isn’t possible the family liaison officer will keep you informed. If it’s clear that your loved one is nearing the end of their life, it may be possible for you to be with them when they pass away. If you’d like this, make sure you inform the family liaison officer as soon as you can so that they can make the necessary arrangements.

Who tells you that your loved one has died in prison? 

According to The Prison Rules 1999, “if a prisoner dies, […] the governor shall, if he knows his or her address, at once inform the prisoner’s spouse or next of kin, and also any person who the prisoner may reasonably have asked should be informed.” 

Even though it’s the duty governor’s responsibility to inform you of your loved one’s death, you’ll usually hear from a family liaison officer. In Scotland, it’s usually the police who’ll let you know what’s happened.  

In some exceptional cases, when a prisoner is released on compassionate grounds due to a terminal illness and they’re receiving care in a hospital or hospice, the prison officer who accompanies them will inform the prison staff as soon as possible. The prison staff will then organise for a family liaison officer to contact you about the death of your loved one.

When someone dies in prison what happens to their body? 

When someone dies in prison their body is typically taken to a mortuary to be taken care of. This could be a hospital or hospice mortuary, or it could be at a funeral home.  

The coroner in the local area will also be told about the death - all deaths in prison custody in the UK need to be referred to the coroner. In Scotland, it’ll be referred to the procurator fiscal. This is so that the death can be investigated by an independent professional to confirm the cause of death.  

The investigation into the cause of death will start shortly after their death but it may end weeks, sometimes months later, with an inquest. This is a type of court hearing that sometimes happens in front of a jury where all the facts found by the coroner will be presented. If the death of your loved one was not complicated, for example, if it was due to a terminal illness, then the inquest will last a few days. In rare cases, where the cause of death was due to a crime or under suspicious circumstances, then the inquest can last considerably longer. An inquest is carried out for most deaths in prison custody to make sure that your loved one was given the best care possible. 

Once the inquest is finished and the cause of death is confirmed, a medical certificate of cause of death will be issued to the register office so that you can register the death. You’ll then be able to get the paperwork you need to start arranging their funeral (if that’s what you’d like to do).

Arranging their funeral 

Once their death has been registered you can start making funeral arrangements if this is what you’d like to do. Your family liaison officer and the prison chaplain may be able to offer you some advice if you need help. Of course, a relationship with someone who’s been in prison can be strained. So how you choose to say your goodbyes is down to you. You can choose to honour them with a funeral service, or you can keep things simple with an unattended funeral. Or you can choose not to get involved at all. There’s no right or wrong way to say goodbye.

Arranging a funeral step by step
Not sure where to start? Read our guide to arranging a funeral.

Go through step-by-step and see what works for you and your budget.

Are there any other investigations into death in UK prisons? 

Understandably, you may be concerned about how someone close to you was treated in prison in the event of their death. That’s why the Prisons and Probation Ombudsmen (PPO) carries out a separate, independent investigation into all deaths that happen in prison custody. They should make sure that the investigation is carried out as soon as possible following the death, that it’s open to public scrutiny and involves the next of kin too.  

Liasing with family members is an important part of all (PPO) investigations. So you can expect to hear from them within 4 weeks of your loved one’s death, or after the funeral, whichever is sooner. They will walk you through the investigation process so that you can ask any questions you may have and also raise any concerns about your loved one’s care so that this can be a part of the investigation. They will also work with the NHS to look at the clinical care of the person who died.  

An initial report of findings will be reviewed by everyone involved, including you, to make sure all details are accurate. After this, the final report will be issued and handed over to you, the prison staff, and the coroner who will consider the findings as part of their inquest.

Support when someone close to you dies in prison 

When someone close to you dies in prison you may experience grief in a way you didn’t think possible. You may face emotional and physical symptoms. If you’re struggling to cope speaking to someone might help. Cruse Bereavement Support provides a free counselling service for anyone struggling to cope with loss. You can call them free on 0808 808 1677 or use their online chat to get help.

Photo by Caroline Martins on Pexels.