inquest | 

Mum asked prison staff to keep ‘closer eye’ on inmate son hours before suicide attempt

An inquest heard that Aideen Gearns immediately rushed to a Cork hospital where her son, Andrew Gearns (29), subsequently died

Andrew Gearns (29) from Model Farm Road, Cork. Photo: Cork Courts


A mother who called a prison to urge staff to keep a “closer eye” on her son after he made a disturbing telephone call to her was contacted just over five hours later and told that he had made a suicide attempt in his cell.

An inquest heard that Aideen Gearns immediately rushed to a Cork hospital where her son, Andrew Gearns (29), subsequently died.

The prison authorities indicated he was checked on 13 times on the afternoon of September 28, 2020.

However, at 4.40pm he was found unresponsive in his one-man cell in Cork Prison following a suicide attempt.

Despite desperate medical efforts to stabilise his condition, he died at Cork University Hospital on October 7, 2020.

Gearns, whose family said he was in “a dark place”, was not in a special observation cell during his time in Cork Prison.

Aideen Gearns told Cork Coroners’ Court that she received an alarming call from him on the day of his suicide attempt.

She thought she would “never get him (Andrew) off the phone” so she could tell the prison that he wasn’t making any sense during the call.

“I dialled the prison straight away. Whatever he was saying he believed it. (The nurse) told me they were aware of it and that they would keep a ‘closer eye’ (on her son).”

The inquest heard that trained service engineer Gearns called his mother when he first entered Cork Prison on September 22, 2020. He seemed perfectly lucid during the first call.

However, Ms Gearns said that on September 28 at around noon he called her and started telling her a confusing tale about having been slashed in the face whilst out for a walk in Blackpool in the city. He also stated that he had gone for tea in Mayfield in the northside of the city.

Ms Gearns said she initially didn’t realise he was hallucinating as she had never before dealt with him in this state.

However, Ms Gearns said when she contacted the prison she was reassured by a nurse that he didn’t have any injuries and they were aware of his condition. She hung up thinking that “a closer eye” would be kept on him.

Evan Gearns, Gearns’ younger brother, told the inquest that the father-of-two was very close to his mother.

“The brown-eyed boy” had such a good relationship with his mother that when they were younger if the siblings wanted something from her Andrew was elected to ask for it.

Mr Gearns told Coroner Philip Comyn his brother’s life had derailed when he became addicted to drugs.

Evan said Andrew had cried the week before he was imprisoned for a minor offence and wanted to turn his life around.

His brother was “lost” and in a “very dark place” prior to his imprisonment, his younger sibling recalled.

“But we thought he was in the best place and would be safe. He didn’t want to be on drugs. He wanted help. We thought he would get the safe and proper medical treatment there.”

Meanwhile, during his committal interview when he first entered prison Gearns said that he was without suicidal ideation and had no mental health difficulties.

Nurse Anna Lyons told the inquest that Gearns guaranteed his safety on two occasions during that interview on September 22 and denied any thought of self-harm or hurting himself.

Ms Lyons said he did not seem distressed or agitated and she did not think that he required special observation. She made Covid protocol checks on him on September 25 and 27.

He was physically well but on the second check he told Ms Lyons that he had been slashed and stabbed on an outing. A review with the GP was scheduled for the following day.

Ms Lyons said although he appeared to be hallucinating he was “easily reassured”. He knew where he was and appeared “orientated” and was scheduled for a GP visit and a check with a psychiatrist.

Ms Lyons said she had carried out a previous committal interview for Gearns in 2018 where she did place him on special observation because he had experienced suicidal ideation.

In 2018 he had made a suicide attempt a week before entering prison.

Barrister for the family, Elizabeth O’Connell SC, asked Ms Lyons why Gearns’ own assessment of his suicide risk was the main reason why he was not placed in special observation.

Ms Lyons said she made her own clinical assessment in addition to receiving feedback from the prisoner.

Mr Comyn noted that there was “glaring inadequacies” in prison medical notes with “clear differences” between what was noted in the nursing notes and in the committal interview.

None of the differences were the fault of the individual nurse but were instead attributed to glitches in the system which are still being fixed.

The inquest also heard evidence from prison officer Paul Cleary who found Gearns unconscious in his cell at 4.50pm on September 28.

He checked on Gearns a number of times that afternoon and said he seemed to be suffering withdrawal symptoms but appeared not to be a threat to himself or others.

Mr Cleary was not aware that Gearns had any history of suicide attempts.

He said that Gearns seemed “defensive and afraid”. At one point during the day Gearns told him that people at the window were trying to fighten him. He also noted that the prisoner had not touched his dinner and when he asked him why he replied: “How could I when my jaw is broken in five places?”

Cork Coroners Court also heard a statement from Gearns’ partner, Amanda O’Callaghan, that he was put on Benzodiazepines for pain relief in 2016 following a car crash. He became addicted to the drugs.

She said that when he was put in prison he rang her on September 25 “sounding low”.

The following day Gearns called Ms O’Callaghan and said he had been attacked in Blackpool despite her knowing he was in prison.

The inquest continues.

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