Concern over prison death records

Mountjoy Prison where there was incorrect record keeping around a prisoner death in 2012

By Joe Leogue

More than two-thirds of investigations into the deaths of vulnerable prisoners since 2012 have raised concerns about “misleading” or inaccurate record-keeping by prison staff, and the care afforded to inmates who have suicidal ideation and mental health problems.

An Irish Examiner analysis of reports published by the office of the Inspector of Prisons has found repeated examples where the prison records from the date of a prisoner’s death in custody have been proven to be incomplete or inaccurate.

In some cases, log books stating that special-observation inmates, or “special obs”, were checked every 15 minutes, as per protocol, were proven to be not true when the inspector reviewed CCTV footage of the time in question.

The Office of the Inspector of Prisons made its first finding of incorrect record-keeping in a 2012 report on the death of a prisoner in Mountjoy.

Similar issues have since been noted in reports into deaths in Cork, Limerick, Portlaoise, Cloverhill, and Wheatfield Prisons.

The Inspector of Prisons has repeatedly raised the issue over the last five years in its annual reports and individual reports into deaths of prisoners in custody.

In his 2013/14 annual report, the late Judge Michael Reilly noted how one prison officer said that, in training, staff are told when it comes to report writing they are to “keep it short and cover your arse”.

Last March, Judge Reilly’s successor, Helen Casey, published a report on the death of Prisoner A on January 3, 2017, in Cork Prison.

Ms Casey’s review of CCTV footage found that on the night he died, Prisoner A — a 52-year-old married father serving a six-month term — was left unchecked for more than the standard 15 minutes on six occasions, including one period that lasted one hour and 42 minutes.

The records, however, stated that he was checked every 15 minutes.

Ms Casey noted that the records provided to her by Cork Prison “are misleading in content” and that she would have accepted that staff had complied with protocol “but for the CCTV footage viewed”.

Incomplete and inaccurate record-keeping regularly feature as a finding in reports from this office,” said Ms Casey.

The Inspector of Prisons has been tasked with preparing individual reports on deaths in custody since 2012.

Since then, 87 such reports have been published — an analysis of these by this newspaper found the reports into 12 deaths have raised concerns about deficiencies in record-keeping and the checking of prisoners.

Eleven of these 12 cases involved a vulnerable prisoner on special observation at the time of their death.

In total, the Inspector of Prisons has published reports into the deaths of 15 special-observation prisoners since 2012.

Deirdre Malone, executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, said the issue is one that has long been of concern to the trust.

The outcomes of these cases are the most serious of the most serious type; these are deaths in custody — people have lost their lives in custody,” she said.

“There is no option when you’re on special obs. There is no other option to contact a family member, there is no option to ring an ambulance yourself, there is no option to ring a friend.

“You are entirely dependent on other people, namely officers, to look after you and when they don’t do that or when they don’t do their checks, the consequences can be of the most serious type, which they were in these cases.”

Ms Malone said there is a need to establish whether the issue is due to a lack of staffing in Irish prisons and “whether or not there is a culture or practice of obfuscating the truth” when it comes to record keeping.

In a joint statement, the Department of Justice and Irish Prison Service said Minister Charlie Flanagan “pays careful attention to reports from the Inspector of Prisons” and that the director of the Prison Service “shares the concerns of the minister in relation to those operational deficiencies illustrated by the [Inspector of Prisons] in some of these reports”.

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