Prisoner’s suicide over kosher food

By Anna Sheinman, July 11, 2013

A convicted murderer has taken his own life in prison following a dispute with prison authorities over his demand for kosher meals that were also gluten free.

Simon Benson, 58, who was convicted of stabbing a man to death in 2003, had been on hunger strike at Maidstone Prison, and had not eaten a meal for a month before hanging himself in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

His brother, Isaac Benson, said: “They found him early this morning. They took him to Maidstone Hospital. He’s on life-support but he’s clinically dead.”

Rabbi Michael Binstock, director of Jewish Prison Chaplaincy, said: “It’s a very tragic situation. Every suicide in prison is a tragedy, and the chaplaincy works very hard to prevent it, and because of chaplaincy we know that many suicides are prevented.”

Benson had been on hunger strike because, after moving to Maidstone two months ago, the prison had provided him with kosher meals but refused to give him kosher food that was gluten-free.

He had been surviving mainly on fluids but had threatened to stop taking them.

Isaac said: “On June 13 the doctor confirmed he should have gluten-free food. That night he was given gluten-free food, but the next day the doctor’s decision was overturned. Simon had not had a meal since then, just the odd packet of crisps.”

It is understood that the prison contests that Benson had undergone sufficient tests to allow him to have special meals.

I said to him, you’ve got two years in jail to go, you’re on the countdown. He just didn’t want to know.

- Isaac Benson

On his final visit Isaac described his brother as “very weak”. “He found it difficult to talk,” he said.

Benson, who was in the eleventh year of his jail term, insisted that a hunger strike was the only way to get the authorities to listen to his demands.

Isaac said: “I said to him, you’ve got two years in jail to go, you’re on the countdown. He just didn’t want to know.”

Benson went on a six-day hunger strike in 2008 when his kosher meals allowance was cut, and he had a history of self-harm.

A spokesperson for the prison service said: “A prisoner from HMP Maidstone was taken to hospital this morning. It would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.”

Earlier, the spokesperson had commented on the hunger strike: “We respect and cater for the dietary needs of prisoners — whether for religious reasons or a diagnosed medical condition. If a Jewish prisoner requires kosher food, this will be provided.

“We take food refusal extremely seriously and work with healthcare staff to monitor the physical and mental health of any prisoner refusing to eat.”

Benson held joint British and Israeli nationality and had intended to return to live in Israel when he was released.

If you or anyone you know has contemplated suicide, you can contact the Samaritans on: 08457 90 90 90

Last updated: 5:45pm, July 11 2013