Dermot Rooney left prison . . . days later he was dead
The Irish Prison Service says it is moving towards the “structured” release of vulnerable prisoners
A few months after Dermot Rooney died, his family received a letter from a woman in Donnybrook, Dublin, where he used to sleep rough. She spoke of his “thoughtful and sometimes humorous” nature, and how when Dermot learned of the death of her eldest son he “actually prayed for him there and then” and he later called to her house with a Mass card.
She wrote: “When I say that Dermot was a gentle man I really mean that in every sense of the word.”
Dermot Rooney, originally from Shankill, Co Dublin, took his own life aged 53 a few days after he was released from prison. It had been his first time in jail, brought about by minor charges arising from drink and drug addictions. His behaviour had become more erratic after the death of a friend in Wexford before Christmas 2010.
Intimidated in prison
When he was taken into custody on January 24th, 2011, “we thought at least he is in a secure environment; he will be fed and get attention, and he will come out after six months”, his brother Gerry recalls. But “he was hugely depressed and intimidated in prison. A weak lad like Dermot is easily picked out. I was frightened visiting him and I had a prison officer next to me. The other prisoners see someone like Dermot and it’s just fun for them to mess around with him.”
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Dermot was first placed on the D wing in Cloverhill for vulnerable prisoners and transferred to Wheatfield, which was not informed of his full personal and medical history – something that was criticised by an independent report.
Focus Ireland visited him three times in prison to prepare accommodation for him on his release, but a day before a fourth meeting the charity was informed Dermot had been given temporary release.
“I couldn’t believe this,” says Gerry Rooney, who had also arranged a further appointment with prison authorities to visit his brother. “I rang them and said how can you put a vulnerable prisoner out with no one to see him? How can you not hand him over to somebody? And they just said, ‘Oh lucky him’ . . . Dermot was just put out on the street.”
A Wexford address that was entered on his release papers was no longer available to him as it was boarded up, and Gerry Rooney says he advised both prison staff and medical staff of this fact. Moreover, the Garda had an outstanding warrant for his arrest at the address – and had this been checked Dermot might never have got temporary release, says his brother.
A few days after Dermot was let out on May 23rd he withdrew some money from his bank account and went missing. His family searched for him in his usual haunts around Donnybrook and thought he may have left for England – “he had this idea he was like Al Capone and he’d go on the run” – but on August 6th they received a call to say Dermot’s body had been found. He had hanged himself on the banks of the Dodder, and had been dead for an estimated two months.
“He should not have been in a mainstream prison, and he should not have been released the way he was,” his brother says.
The Irish Prison Service (IPS) acknowledged at the inquest into Dermot’s death “that it was a failure on our part not to have consulted with Focus Ireland who had been engaging with Mr Rooney”. It also admitted no formal case review was conducted before his release, and nor were any efforts made to ensure he had someone to meet him when released.
However, it said there were “no mandatory standards” in this regard, and it defended its right not to consult family members, saying such contact was inappropriate in most cases “save with the express consent of the prisoner”.
The case has striking similarities with that of Alan Hempenstall (37), originally from Ballymun, Dublin, but homeless at the time of his death. He died of an apparent methadone overdose on March 28th, 2011, a few weeks after his temporary release from Wheatfield.
His sister, Donna O’Connor, said Alan “went into himself” in prison and refused to let her visit. Prison staff raised concerns about his mental health but this was not passed on for reasons of patient confidentiality. The address on his admissions sheet and to which he was released was not checked – and had it been the IPS would have realised he was homeless.
At his inquest the IPS said it had acted “within the law” but “we realise what happened here was not good enough”. Had it known he was sleeping on the streets he would not have been so released.
As it was, he was let out on March 8th with €38.10 in his pocket, and the inquest heard he had difficulty accessing social welfare. His drew down his first such payment on the day of his death, and later consumed two bottles of methadone prescribed for another homeless man. He died in an alleyway in the city centre.
His sister said she was waiting for Alan to be released in April, in accordance with his sentence, when she learnt of his death. “I thought he would be better in prison than walking the streets . . . I thought he was okay. I took my eye off the ball.”
She said he used to write her long letters but a few months before his death grew “paranoid” and cut off contact.
The IPS says it is now moving away from the practice of “unstructured” releases, although critics say it is at least several years behind the European norm in this regard.
How many other people have died in the immediate wake of their release from prison is unknown. No agency records these figures, and we only know about the cases above because the next-of-kin were willing to pose awkward questions.
A similar case to come before the Coroner’s Court was that of Marcus Briggs (39), of no fixed abode but originally from England. He was found dead at Cook Street, Dublin, on February 5th, 2011, just two days after being released from Mountjoy. As with the other two, he had been jailed on minor offences.
Dr Joanne Fenton, a consultant psychiatrist who works with homeless services in Dublin, says people coming out of prison with mental illness are at a vulnerable stage. Sometimes they find themselves unable to return home or are unwelcome in their neighbourhoods.
“For those individuals I think more work needs to be done on co-ordinating housing needs. If someone has served a long sentence sending them into emergency or homeless accommodation is just cruel.”
Those serving short sentences often need “a little bit of stability” to stop them falling back into prison, and this can be provided by mental health services. However, “there is a gap there in the care pathway with regard to some individuals”.
As regards the IPS, it has drawn up new temporary release protocols, prohibiting release at the weekend and stipulating better advance notice for prisoners. Community welfare officers are in place in 12 of the State’s 14 prisons, while in the other two – Cork and Limerick – there are liaison arrangements with homeless organisations.
A new internal computer network has been installed allowing vulnerable prisoners to receive a “flag alert” without breaching patient confidentiality. “We are moving towards a situation where all releases from prison are planned and structured,” says Fergal Black, director of care and rehabilitation at the IPS.
But Gerry Rooney says he has “no confidence” in the IPS management. “I am not looking for recompense. My family would just like to see this doesn’t happen again. But it will happen – because the whole reaction throughout this debacle has been to say ‘it wasn’t us’.
“People will continue to come out and fall through the net and then go back on drugs, or commit crimes.”