Deaths in prison custody: A scoping review of the experiences of staff and bereaved relatives

Audrey Roulston, Clare McKeaveney, Margaret Anderson, Paul McCloskey, Michelle Butler

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Prison populations are growing globally with an increase in older and infirm prisoners, as well as longer prison sentences, meaning more prisoners are likely to die while incarcerated. This scoping review explored the experiences of a death in prison custody on staff and relatives.

Ovid MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL and PsycINFO were professionally searched, followed by a hand search. Empirical and non-empirical studies of deaths in prison custody were screened. Data extraction used Arksey and O’Malley’s framework. Thematic analysis was underpinned by Braun and Clarke for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns.

From 12,127 citations retrieved, 174 were selected for full-text review, and 22 were included in the final scoping review. Thematic analysis revealed four themes: (i) transformative effect (ii) time delays, (iii) conflicts of interest, and (iv) support. Prison staff avoided contaminating their personal lives. Families were distressed by inaccurate and untimely information, inappropriate constraints and poor communication. Staff balanced security and humanitarian needs. Bereaved relatives and staff felt isolated, alienated and unsupported.

Conclusions and recommendations:
Unmet advocacy, communication and social care needs, poor end-of-life and bereavement care could be improved through staff training and social work intervention. Staff need psychosocial support, supervision and counselling.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBritish Journal of Social Work
Early online date31 Aug 2020
Publication statusEarly online date - 31 Aug 2020


  • Bereavement
  • Prison
  • Death
  • Scoping review
  • Social justice


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