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Jail staff watched as mentally ill prisoner blinded himself in cell

Sean Lynch with his sister Kay, dad Damien and niece Ellie at home in Derry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Seamus McKinney

THE family of a Derry man have expressed shock that prison officers watched as their son blinded himself in his jail cell.

Relatives of Sean Lynch accused authorities of gross negligence after a harrowing report by Prisoner Ombudsman Tom McGonigle detailed a catalogue of failures.

Over a three-day period at Maghaberry prison in 2014, when Mr Lynch was on remand for breaching bail conditions, he inflicted “extreme and shocking” injuries on himself.

As well as injuries to his eyes which have left him permanently blind, he suffered an 8cm cut to his testicles.

Mr McGonigle’s report said CCTV footage of Mr Lynch on June 5 2014 showed him getting up and walking to a mirror "with the index finger of his left hand in his left eye before putting his middle finger also into his eye".

"He turned away from the camera but the position of his arm would suggest he continued to injure his eye. After stopping he fell onto his knees and lay on the floor near the end of his bed.”

At this time, two prison officers were at a “class office desk”. However, seconds later, an officer returned to Mr Lynch’s cell door for 15 seconds.

The ombudsman said: “Mr Lynch was continuing to injure his eye and continued to do so for 12 (out of the 15) seconds that Officer A was observing him. Mr Lynch was on his knees facing the cell door so his actions would have been visible. As he stood up, the officer was already walking away.”

Mr McGonigle revealed that during this main episode, Mr Lynch self-harmed on 20 separate occasions.

He said: “He damaged both eyes to the extent he rendered himself blind and extended his groin injury.

“It seems remarkable that several experienced NIPS (Northern Ireland Prison Service) officers, including a senior officer, all felt it was neither necessary nor appropriate to enter his cell to prevent Mr Lynch from self-harming further.”

Mr McGonigle said prison staff had complied with a "strict interpretation" of governor’s orders on intervention, with Mr Lynch not meeting the definition of a life-threatening situation.

He added: “Their duty of care was trumped by security concerns that appear to have had little basis in reality.”

In a highly-critical report, the ombudsman revealed that it took two weeks for Mr Lynch to see a psychiatrist.

Prison authorities also initiated a prisoner at risk process which was not designed to care for someone “as challenging as Mr Lynch”.

The ombudsman said aspects of the observation policy were deficient and no-one took overall responsibility for managing the Derry man as a vulnerable prisoner.

He added: “His final location, Quoile House (at Maghaberry prison), was unsuitable for managing someone who was so disturbed. A contemporary, independent assessment by a priest is informative: he said on 1st June ‘His condition is beyond anything the officers can cope with'.”

Mr Lynch’s father Damian said it was “incredible” that prison staff refused to enter his son’s cell during the main self-harming episode for 67 minutes to prevent him from blinding himself, despite knowing he was on “suicide watch”.

“The impact on the family and on Sean has been horrendous. Our lives and Sean’s have been changed forever."

He added: “We believe that this investigation clearly indicates wide-ranging failures in the duty of care for Sean, by both prison services and the health service.”

Mr Lynch also confirmed that despite his son’s mental illness, authorities were proceeding with a case of assault relating to a attack on a prison warder at the time.

He said the family have now become his son’s full time carers.

“He has no life. He is blind and does not socialise. He does not go out. He has a lot of fear in him and has flashbacks and nightmares; he is traumatised,” he said.

Independent councillor Gary Donnelly, who has worked closely with Mr Lynch’s family, called for action against any prison staff involved.

Justice minister Claire Sugden expressed sympathy to Mr Lynch and his family and said the Prison Service would learn from the findings of Mr McGonigle’s report.

“It is important to reflect on the independent assessment quoted in the ombudsman’s report which said Mr Lynch’s condition was beyond anything that prison officers could cope with,” she said.

Prison Service director general Sue McAllister said she had never come across a case of such “extreme self-harm.”

“It is important that the service learns from the findings of the Prisoner Ombudsman,” Ms McAllister said.

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