Death of an Activist – A mothers Pain

On the last Saturday of most Octobers I have been privileged to attend the Annual United Families & Friends Campaign (UFFC) procession from Trafalgar Square to Downing Street. This year due to Covid-19 the event has been moved online – please visit

Up until 2007 I would always attend with the campaigner Pauline Campbell, who daughter died in Styal Prison in 2003. This short article remembering Pauline and Sarah was published in The View Magazine earlier this year.

On the 15th May 2008 Pauline Campbell, the most important and effective anti-prison campaigner of recent years, was found dead by the grave of her daughter, Sarah. Between 2004 and 2008, every time a woman died in prison, Pauline would protest outside the prison in remembrance of the woman.  If a van arrived with girls and women inside Pauline would block the vehicle. She demanded the vans turn around and take the women to a place of safety. Occasionally they did, more often the police were called. On 13 occasions Pauline was arrested, handcuffed and dragged away. Three times she was charged and once she stood trial as the state tried to criminalise her. 

Pauline has been compared to the suffragettes. This is inaccurate, Pauline was brave, Pauline was angry, Pauline was committed, but her activism can only be understood if we acknowledge that Pauline was a grieving mother. On the 17th January 2003 Sarah, Pauline’s daughter, was sentenced to three years imprisonment. She was 18 years old, in poor mental health, 8 months clean from a severe addiction and scared. On arrival at Styal prison, she was placed in the seg unit. The following day she took an overdose, informing a prison nurse immediately. Sarah was left vomiting, alone, in her cell. As prison staff delayed calling an ambulance Sarah fitted, continued to vomit and died bleeding from the nose and mouth. The subsequent inquest found she had died as a result of a failure of care by the prison. 

Sarah was one of six women who died in Styal in a six-month period. Pauline never recovered from Sarah’s death, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of her life. Her pain made her a formidable campaigner. At a House of Commons reception, she would identify a Minister and walk over to them, speak truth to power and make sure they understood they were responsible. She supported others who had lost loved ones to state violence, and in particularly was active through the charity, Inquest. She was uncompromising in her critique of the prison. It was a violent place of pain, fundamentally unsafe and inherently abusive. 

Through the media, by confronting Ministers face to face and by placing her body in the way of prison vans, she drew attention to women’s prisons and the epidemic of self-harm and self-inflicted deaths. Her campaigning was central to the establishment of Jean Corston’s review of women’s imprisonment which reported in 2007. Although Corston’s recommendations – which would have dramatically decreased the female prison population and expanded support services – were never implemented, the report highlighted how it was largely women damaged by society that were incarcerated rather than those who caused significant harm to society. 

Pauline was a relentless campaigner; she took the government to court under human rights legalisation forcing them to accept liability for Sarah’s death and pay compensation. And every time a woman died, Pauline would protest, deploying her frail body to stand up to the power of the state. Although she was a remarkably strong woman, Sarah’s death devastated her. Despite the successes of her campaigning the pain was too much to bear and Pauline died in 2008 by the grave of her child. 

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