The State prison watchdog has called on the Irish Prison Service to evaluate the use of anti-ligature furniture in prison cells in order to reduce the potential for self-harm by inmates.
The Office of the Inspector of Prisons also said the identification of potential ligature points and items of self-harm to those at risk should form part of daily inspections as well as policy in all prisons as agreed in the National Strategy for Prevention of Suicide.
The proposals are among a series of recommendations made by the OIP in a report on the death of a prisoner in custody two years ago.
Andrew Gearns (29), a father of two from Model Farm Road, Cork, was found unresponsive in his cell on September 29, 2020, as a result of an attempted suicide and died eight days later at Cork University Hospital without regaining consciousness.
The OIP report noted that the cell had a bunk bed with a tubular frame, while the prisoner was also allowed to retain his own clothing, including his footwear.
The mother of the prisoner, who was named only as Mr K in the report , told the OIP she was bringing her son to a dental appointment when she received a call on her mobile phone that gardaí were looking for her son and had a warrant for his arrest.
Mr Gearns’ mother insisted she told gardaí that her son was in “a bad place” but recalled feeling reassured when they told her that they would look after him.
However, the gardaí who arrested Mr Gearns did not recall any concerns about the prisoner’s wellbeing being mentioned to them and they said they had no reason to report anything to the IPS.
The OIP also recommended that information about a prisoner’s previous history of self-harm should be recorded on various IPS records systems with all relevant prison staff with a duty of care being made aware of the existence of such information.
It also called on the prison authorities to introduce a Person Escort Record to be completed for every movement by a prisoner in and out of a prison which should include details of all known risks of self-harm and vulnerability.
Mr Gearns’ mother said he had previously held a senior position in an engineering company until his life had changed considerably following a road traffic collision in which he sustained serious injuries.
She said her son, who could no longer work following the crash, subsequently became addicted to medication.
While he had successfully completed rehabilitation therapy on two occasions, she said he had relapsed at some point.
The OIP report noted that Mr Gearns appeared to suffer hallucinations during his short period of incarceration in Cork Prison and had refused to take his medication on some occasions.
In one incident on September 27, he informed prison staff that he had been left out of the prison to go for a walk but had been “stabbed and slashed” in Blackpool with the culprits outside the prison.
He admitted to a prison nurse who had examined him on committal to the prison that he had a history of drug misuse and was smoking heroin.
However, the nurse said Mr Gearns had denied having any psychiatric history or any suicidal ideation or self-harm.
The OIP report noted that he was placed in a two-man cell on his own due the requirement to quarantine new committals during the pandemic, although a nurse had recommended that he should be accommodated in a shared cell on a normal landing.
Mr Gearns’ mother said she contacted a prison nurse out of concern for her son’s safety after she had a phone call with him earlier on the day he attempted suicide. She said he told her about the hallucination of being stabbed in Blackpool and 50 people being outside his cell threatening his life.
The OIP noted that 13 checks were subsequently carried out that day on the prisoner before he was found in an unresponsive state at 4.53pm.
The inspector observed that Mr Gearns was checked more frequently than was required under IPS standard operating procedures.
In response to the OIP report, the IPS said it partially accepted two of the main recommendations.
The IPS pointed out daily checks are currently carried out by staff who look for damage to a cell which could cause a health and safety issue.
It also noted that all furniture purchased by the IPS is evaluated for risk, while one of its health and safety officers assesses products at a tender evaluation meeting.
An inquest into Mr Gearns death is due to be heard in Cork City Coroner’s Court on Tuesday.
A previous hearing of the inquest was adjourned last September at the request of lawyers for Mr Gearns’ family as they had not been provided with the full 72 hours of CCTV footage from the prison at the time of his death.