Inquest hears man died of heroin overdose while in Wheatfield Prison

Verdict of misadventure delivered in case of death of Thomas Stokes (23)

A 23-year-old man died following a heroin overdose while in custody at Wheatfield Prison in Dublin more than six years ago, an inquest has heard.

Thomas Stokes had enjoyed special privileges in prison due to his good behaviour, and had been housed in a wing were it was “unusual” to find someone using heroin at the time of his death, a sitting of Dublin District Coroner’s Court heard on Monday.

A jury at the inquest returned a verdict of misadventure.

Mr Stokes died at Tallaght University Hospital on September 17th, 2017, a day after he’d been discovered unresponsive in his single cell.


Joseph Hernon, assistant governor at Wheatfield Prison, told the inquest that at the time, “there wouldn’t have been a drug problem” in the prison’s East Division where Mr Stokes’s cell was, given that prisoners there were on an enhanced list for good behaviour, and prisoners housed there were generally older.

“It would have been unusual to find someone in the East Division using heroin,” he told the inquest.

Speaking generally, Mr Hernon said that drug use was a problem across all prisons in Ireland.

Mr Stokes had been referred to an addiction counsellor in the prison while in custody, the court heard. No heroin was discovered in subsequent searches of his cell, and no evidence was put before the court as to how Mr Stokes came into possession of heroin.

Martin Stokes, a brother of the deceased, told the court that Mr Stokes had been in “very good form, very good humour”, in the days before his death. He said that he had adjusted well to life in prison, and was “willing to take it on the chin”.

Mr Stokes, the youngest of 11 siblings, used drugs “now and again” before going to prison, his brother said, adding that he did not have any knowledge of his sibling’s drug use in prison.

Martin Stokes said he was shocked to learn that after Mr Stokes was admitted to Tallaght Hospital, medics found he had suffered too much damage to his organs to be saved.

Prison officer Philip Neenan told the court how he checked on Mr Stokes once per hour on the evening of September 15th, into September 16th, in line with prison policy. Mr Neenan checked on the prisoner by opening a flap on the cell door and visually observing him.

Mr Neenan told the court that Mr Stokes had been in his cell watching television for a period, before switching off the light and apparently going to sleep. “He did not come to my attention at all during the night,” Mr Neenan said.

Martin Stokes had earlier claimed that, according to someone in the prison, Mr Stokes’ had been “screaming for help” and beating on his cell door during the night in question.

When asked by Asim Sheikh BL, for the Irish Prison Service, if he had heard any noise or signs of distress that night, Mr Neenan said he had not.

On the morning of September 16th, Mr Stokes was found unresponsive in his bed between 8am and 8.15am by prison officer Brian Kavanagh. Mr Kavanagh called for help, and within minutes, he said, Nurse Cecelia Conway arrived at the cell and commenced CPR.

At about 8.40am, Dublin Fire Brigade took over care of the inmate, and continued resuscitation efforts with a mechanical CPR machine. Mr Stokes was also administered with naloxone, to treat a suspected opioid overdose.

He began spontaneously breathing again, and at 9.15am he was removed from the cell to be taken on to Tallaght hospital, where he arrived at 9.33am. That afternoon, a CT scan at the hospital revealed that Mr Stokes had suffered extensive injuries to his brain. He was pronounced dead at 1.54am on September 17th.

A postmortem report, prepared by Dr Michael Curtis, found that Mr Stokes had died from brain injuries due to lack of an oxygenated blood supply. This was secondary to heroin intoxication, Dr Curtis found. Evidence of heroin intoxication was discovered in his system, as well as small amounts of codeine and morphine.

Coroner Dr Clare Keane noted that Mr Stokes’ death was “somewhat unusual” given that he was an enhanced prisoner, benefiting from extra prison privileges due to his good behaviour.

Mr Hernon told the inquest that drug use was a problem across all prisons in Ireland. The Irish Prison Service tackles drug use in prisons using a multifactorial approach, he said, including spot searches of cells, detector dogs, prisoner therapy, screening of civilian visitors and drone observation.

He said that, anecdotally, the types of drugs popular within prisons have changed in recent years, with pills having overtaken heroin. “Prisoners find heroin a dirtier drug,” he said.

A change in policy in 2018 means that prisoners are now checked on less frequently overnight, Mr Hernon said, in the interest of human rights and privacy. Checks on prisoner under special observation are logged electronically, in another update to prison policy, he said.

Fiachra Gallagher

Fiachra Gallagher

Fiachra Gallagher is an Irish Times journalist