A serving prisoner from Derry killed himself in his jail cell on his 37th birthday, an inquest jury heard yesterday.
Hours after swearing on the lives of his wife and children that he was not a risk to himself, Christopher Stokes was found hanging in his cell at Maghaberry Prison on 25 June 2012.
The Coroner’s Inquest jury of six men and four women heard that concerns were raised by his wife Mary Stokes who called the prison to say that her husband had “threatened to cut himself” when the couple had had an argument.
Senior prison officer Pamela McKeown said she actively considered opening a SPAR booklet, Supporting Prisoner At Risk, which would engage different prisoner management systems such as more regular checks but that she had a lengthy conversation with him where he said the argument had “gone too far.”
He repeatedly swore on the lives of his wife and children that he was not considering self harm or suicide as to do so “would bring shame on them,” said the senior officer adding that Stokes had “short term goals” including a visit from his family two days later.
Stokes, from Glengalliagh Park, was a member of the Travelling community and all the jury have heard is that he was serving a “lengthy prison sentence” having been imprisoned along with his brother Edward.
Staff on duty that day had told evening staff to “keep an eye” on Stokes amid concerns raised from the phonecall and PO Ronald Carroll testified that he checked on the prisoner at 45 minutes intervals and that at all times he “seemed to be fine.”
At one such check at 21.49 however, PO Carroll said he saw Stokes hanging.
Alerting his fellow officers, the cell door was opened, and efforts at resuscitation began immediately but tragically, they were unsuccessful.
Opening the inquest at Ballymena courthouse, Coroner Jim Kitson told the jury their task was “not a blame game” but rather, as Stokes had died whilst in the care of the State, to determine how and when he died.
Reading from the post mortem report, Coroner Kitson said Deputy State Pathologist for NI Dr Alastair Bentley reported that death was due to hanging and that he did not find any evidence that Stokes had been the victim of any violence before his death.
Ms Ruth O’Duinnin from the Prisoners Ombudsman office also gave evidence testifying that as part of her investigation, she had twice interviewed Stokes’ best friend in jail, Kristoff Aluya who told her that on the day he took his own life, he took a birthday card and a box of chocolates to Stokes’ cell to celebrate his birthday.
Aluya, who had to be interviewed twice as he was so upset and crying, told the investigator he was “concerned” about his friend after the phonecall argument Stokes had with his wife but when he offered to spend the night with him in Stokes’ cell, he “laughed it off” and said he was “100%.”
Ms O’Duinnan said Aluya described his relationship with Stokes as “extremely close, like brothers” and that he would have been more likely to confide in him rather than his brother Edward who was also in Erne House.
The evidence to be heard as part of the inquest has finished and Coroner Kitson told the jury that he would give them directions on the law and how to approach their deliberations today (Tuesday) sending them home with a warning not to conduct their own research into the incident or discuss the case.