Officer 'should have acted sooner'

A Gore police officer has admitted she should have acted sooner on a family's concerns about the mental health of a prisoner who was later found dead in his cell.

The officer, who has interim name suppression, told the Coroners Court in Invercargill yesterday she was informed by a family member about concerns the prisoner, Rowan Joseph Smart Edwards, would take his own life, less than 90 minutes before he was found dead by Invercargill Prison staff after an apparent suicide in July last year.

The officer, who was visibly upset during most of her testimony, said she took the concerns seriously at the time, but did not feel there was any urgency in telling prison staff.

''Based on the information provided to me by [the family member], I should have immediately contacted the Invercargill Prison and passed those concerns on,'' she told the court.

The officer had been interviewing a family member in Invercargill on the morning of Mr Edwards' death on July 15, in relation to a recent domestic incident involving him.

Shortly after, she spoke to Mr Edwards' mother and aunt, and the latter told the officer she was concerned about his mood and that he might try to harm himself in prison, she said.

Mr Edwards (27) had been facing serious charges, some of which included violence against a family member.

The officer said she left Invercargill and went to Gore after the conversation to change into her uniform and have lunch.

She arrived at the Gore Police Station about 1.05pm, intending to call prison staff, before hearing a medical dispatch call to the prison and later learning Mr Edwards was dead.

When asked by coroner JP Ryan why she did not call the prison at the time, the officer said she had thought a lot about that since.

''I can only tell you what I felt at the time,'' she said.

''I took time to reassure [the family member] that the prison has a duty of care.

''I just didn't have any sense of urgency at that time.

''It was always my intention [to call the prison]. I was in the process of finding the number when I heard the dispatch call come in.''

Mr Edwards' aunt appeared to be upset about both the charges facing her nephew and his risk of self harm, the officer said.

When asked by Invercargill lawyer Mary-Jane Thomas, representing the police, whether the officer would have called the prison immediately if she felt Mr Edwards was in ''really critical danger'', the officer agreed she would have.

Mr Edwards was last seen alive on CCTV footage at 11.39am, the court heard.

It was first noticed he was missing when two prison staff, whose names were also suppressed, went to gather the remand prisoners for their afternoon yard break.

In giving evidence, one of those officers said he opened Mr Edwards' cell door slightly and could not see him.

He thought Mr Edwards may have been moved by another officer, so took the rest of the prisoners to the yard, before hearing an urgent medical call at Mr Edwards' cell and arriving to find him dead behind the cell door.

He administered CPR, to no avail, before medical officers arrived, he said.

When Mr Ryan asked the officer why he did not look behind the door, the officer said: ''I had no reason to think he would be behind the door.

''I could see the rest of the cell, he just appeared not to be there.''

He described Mr Edwards as a ''happy sort of a chap'', who gave no appearance of being troubled.

The family's representative, Denise Lormans, asked the officer if moving of prisoners was recorded. The officer said it should be and confirmed no note was made of Mr Edwards being moved.

The officer also confirmed that if a prisoner was being assessed for risk, information about their charges was not accessible and the officer agreed it would be helpful if it was.

The other officer who checked Mr Edwards' cell confirmed the door was opened no more than 40cm, for safety reasons.

Prison nurse Margaret Black said Mr Edwards was a ''pleasant, polite, well-mannered young man'' who appeared to be future focused.

He spoke the day before his death of his family, getting back to work and being transferred to Otago Corrections Facility so he could complete training, she said.

She determined Mr Edwards had no mental health issues and she was ''absolutely devastated'' when she heard he was dead.

''When I went home, I racked my brain and went over and over the questions I asked him.

''I absolutely swear and declare on the Bible I never missed a thing.''

When asked by Mr Ryan how she could explain what happened the following day, she said ''I can't explain what happened the following day - I wish I could''.

She also agreed it would be helpful, when making assessments about prisoners' risk to themselves, to be aware of charges they faced.

She would have referred him to the ''safe cells'' if she had been told from an outside source he was suicidal.

The inquest will continue today.

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