Corkman who had told prison of attempt to kill himself was not put under special observation

An inquest into Andrew Gearns's death in Cork Prison heard of “glaring inaccuracies” in his prison medical notes
Corkman who had told prison of attempt to kill himself was not put under special observation

The family of Andrew Gearns — brother Evan, mother Aideen and sister Jemma Gearns. Picture: Larry Cummins

An inquest heard how a man who previously spoke of trying to kill himself and was suffering violent hallucinations had been locked in a cell alone with “minimal” human interaction, before he took his own life.

Andrew Gearns, 29, a father of two from Model Farm Rd in Cork had developed a drug addiction after being prescribed benzodiazepines to cope with pain following a car crash.

He entered Cork Prison “at a low ebb” in September 2020 and was found unresponsive in his cell days later after a fatal attempt on his own life. That day, he had suffered delusions of being “stabbed and slashed” and cowered in his cell from imagined aggressors at his window when a prison officer entered.

Despite prison staff knowing of his delusional state, he was not considered a suicide risk at that time, but he was checked on some 13 times in the hours before he made an attempt on his life.

However Elizabeth O’Connell, senior counsel for the family, said that some of these checks amounted to just a two-second-long look through a window in his cell door.

Mr Gearns told the Irish Prison Service in 2018 that he had recently tried to kill himself while in garda custody and he was put on special observation — where his cell is checked every 15 minutes — at that time. But he was not put on special observation when entering the prison again in 2020.

Andrew Gearns had developed a drug addiction after being prescribed benzodiazepines to cope with pain following a car crash.
Andrew Gearns had developed a drug addiction after being prescribed benzodiazepines to cope with pain following a car crash.

At his committal interview on September 22, 2020, he denied mental health problems, did not appear agitated or distressed, and told Nurse Anna Lyons — who was conducting the interview — that he was of no risk to himself on two occasions.

'Technical glitch'

Questions were raised in Cork Coroner’s Court about the reliability of this assessment process. It was also noted that a “technical glitch” — which has still not been resolved — meant that old information on Mr Gearns' previous time in prison was erroneously and automatically populating his committal interview form which documents a prisoner’s health on entering prison.

Despite professing stable mental health in his commital interview, just days after that interview, on September 27, 2020, Mr Gearns had become delusional.

He said that he had been stabbed and slashed with a knife in Blackpool, although he was in custody at the time, and was pointing to his stomach, which he believed was wounded.

His mother, Aideen Gearns, had called the prison with serious concerns on September 28, 2020, about her son’s mental health in the hours before his death after a worrying phone call from him when he told her that he had been stabbed and slashed in Blackpool in Cork City.

Following the imagined attack, he said he was brought to Mayfield for a cup of tea before being returned to the prison.

Ms Gearns said that she had never heard her son delusional like this before, and was extremely worried for his mental health.

He was making no sense, I was really worried,” said Ms Gearns.

She called the prison immediately and a nurse assured her that the prison was aware of her son’s hallucinations and would “keep a close eye on him”.

But despite some 13 subsequent checks on Mr Gearns, he was found unresponsive in his cell.

'He just wanted help'

Mr Gearns was much loved, the inquest heard. He was very close to his mother and was described in Cork Coroner’s Court as her ‘brown eyed boy’. He was a loving father of two and had been with their mother, Amanda O’Callaghan, for some 17 years since they attended school together in Bishopstown Community College as teenagers.

He was a talented soccer player and worked as an engineer with Munster Air Compressors.

But his happy family life, with Amanda and their two children, descended into chaos after he lost his job and he had a car crash which led to a benzodiazepine addiction.

By the time he was brought to prison in 2020, he “was in a very dark place”, he was using drugs and his relationship had broken down. His normal happy family life had descended into chaos and disaster, but everyone was still there for him, Ms O’Connell said.

Andrew’s younger brother, Evan Gearns, said that Andrew wanted to stop drugs and had a better future to look forward to.

“Andrew was a joker, always pranking and messing with myself and our sister Gemma," he said.

He was mum’s brown eyed boy — if we wanted something from mum, we’d go to him.” 

But he was not doomed. “He didn’t want to do it anymore, he didn’t want to be on the drugs, he just wanted help,” said Evan.

"He would have gone through his short sentence and got out of prison. We thought he was safe in there.” 

The last time Mr Gearns was checked before he took his own life, the flap was lifted for his cell for just two seconds, according to CCTV analysis carried out by the family’s legal team, Ms O'Connell said.

And a nurse’s previous check on the hallucinating inmate had lasted approximately one minute, Ms O’Connell said.

The inquest in Cork, in front of Coroner Philip Comyn and a jury of four men and two women, continues.

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