Man died from overdose soon after 'unstructured' release


A homeless man with mental health problems who died shortly after his temporary release from prison should not have been discharged in such an “unstructured” fashion, the Irish Prison Service has said.

Alan Hempenstall (37), Ballymun, Dublin, but homeless since 2005, died of an apparent methadone overdose on March 28th, 2011, a few weeks after his temporary release from Wheatfield Prison.

Andrew Brennan, assistant principal officer with the Prison Service, told Dublin Coroner’s Court yesterday it had been “within the law” to release Mr Hempenstall in the manner it did but it was not best practice.

“We realise what happened here was not good enough . . . We are trying to make changes and learn from this and other tragic cases that have happened.”

Mr Hempenstall was one of 16 prisoners selected for early release on March 8th because of overcrowding. On that date, there were 60 people “on the floor” of Mountjoy alone.

He was chosen because he was serving a short sentence for minor offences. He left with €38.10 in his pocket, the inquest heard.

Prison officials said they were unaware he was homeless and “if they had known he was sleeping on the streets”, without hostel accommodation, he would not have been so released, Mr Brennan said.

He noted that the Minister for Justice had earlier this year introduced a new scheme to facilitate temporary and early release, which involved carrying out case assessments and liaising with probation officers and other services.

Asked whether unstructured releases were continuing, Mr Brennan replied that due to resource constraints, they were. “Unfortunately that is the case,” he said. “Hopefully in a few years it’s not.”

Mr Brennan described how the Prison Service had encountered difficulties implementing the early release plan. “There are one or two lifers . . . who refuse to go; they see it as their home.” There were two recent incidents when prisoners approved for temporary release at open facilities held “parties to say goodbye”, at which contraband and drug issues arose.

Mr Hempenstall’s sister, Donna O’Connor, thanked the court for “finding out the truth” about her brother.

The inquest was adjourned until January 4th.