By Niall McCracken
THE family of a man who died of a heart attack after being restrained by prison wardens over 17 years ago has spoken for the first time about their long struggle for justice.
James Carlisle McDonnell (36) from Antrim died in Maghaberry Prison in March 1996 shortly after an incident with officers in which he was grabbed by the neck.
During an inquest hearing on Thursday (May 17) a jury found that the neck injury suffered by Mr McDonnell during the altercation led to stress that contributed to his fatal heart attack later that day.
Speaking to The Detail today Mr McDonnell’s mother Elizabeth said: "The past 17 years have been terrible. We’ve waited so long for the inquest but we got the result that we needed as a family.
“During the inquest at times it’s been hard to sit there and listen to what happened to Jim in the prison and having to look at the photos of him lying in his cell, but it’s been worth it.”
Mr McDonnell’s daughter Joanne said: “We can’t thank our legal team enough. We’re just glad the truth has finally come out.
“We as a family knew all along in our hearts what happened but it’s important to get things out in the open.
“There’ll have to be changes in the prison service and that’s something we’ll fight for but for now we can try get on with our lives.”
Mr McDonnell was found unconscious in a punishment cell at Maghaberry on March 30 1996. At 4pm medical assistance had been called but fifteen minutes later Mr McDonnell was pronounced dead. Earlier that day he had been transferred to Maghaberry from Crumlin Road prison as the site was closing.
During the course of a four week inquest the jury heard that on the day of the fatal incident Mr McDonnell had received news that his father had died.
The inquest heard that Mr McDonnell had wanted to be transferred to a single cell upon his arrival at Maghaberry.
Senior Coroner John Leckey said: “This was the catalyst for an altercation with a prison officer that led to the control and restraint procedures being carried out by a number of prison officers.”
Karen Quinlivan QC, counsel for the McDonnell family, said this had resulted in the 36-year-old being grabbed by the throat resulting in a neck injury causing him “considerable stress and contributing to his eventual heart attack”.
Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) counsel Patrick Lyttle QC claimed that as Mr McDonnell had an underlying heart condition and there was no connection between him being physically restrained and his heart attack. Mr Lyttle described Mr McDonnell’s death as a tragic event that “could have happened at anytime for any reason” and that the prison service was not at fault.
The Coroner John Leckey told the jury that it had to consider whether his heart attack was spontaneous or was triggered by one or any of the events that had taken place that day.
After deliberating for four hours the jury found that Mr McDonnell had been physically restrained by prison officers as a result of violent behaviour. However the jury concluded that the control and restraint procedures had not been carried out correctly.
The jury questioned the level of training given to prison officers in physically restraining inmates.
A foreman for the jury stated: “It is probable based on the evidence that Mr McDonnell during the initial restraint procedure was grabbed by the neck and sustained the injuries recorded at post mortem.”
The jury outlined a number of factors that contributed to Mr McDonnell suffering a fatal heart attack – the initial restraint, neck compression, the control and restraint as carried out in this instance, underlying heart conditions and emotional stress.
The jury found that prison officers had used excessive force and were not trained in the application of applying discretion when using control and restraint procedures. The jury concluded that the prison service failed in its duty of care to Mr McDonnell.
The family’s solicitor Padraig O’Muirigh said: “We will be contacting the Director of Public Prosecutions about these findings and the McDonnell family will be considering taking civil proceedings against the Northern Ireland Prison Service."
In a statement to The Detail a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Prison Service said it would give consideration to the findings of the jury.