Belfast Telegraph

Dying prisoner 'had only his budgies for company'

By Claire O'Boyle

A reclusive prisoner spent the last months of his life holed up in a cell with just his pet budgies for company as cancer ravaged his body, an inquest has heard.

Samuel Alexander Smyth, known as Alec, lived for months in "squalor" and perpetual darkness in his Maghaberry cell as he refused to engage with prison authorities about his health, the inquest was told.

Concerns about Mr Smyth's health were raised with prison staff and medical workers in May 2013 by one of Mr Smyth's fellow inmates, who had seen his weight plummet, watched him struggle to walk and talk and felt a huge lump in his throat.

Another inmate told the inquest how he had also reported concerns that summer after feeling a lump the size of a 50p coin on Mr Smyth's neck.

However Mr Smyth's cancer, believed to have spread through his body from his lungs, was not spotted by doctors until November 22, 2013. He died less than four weeks later at Belfast City Hospital, aged 56.

John Main, who served time alongside Mr Smyth on the separate loyalist area of Maghaberry and spoke on his behalf to prison authorities, told the inquest he was told his friend would have to raise concerns himself before action could be taken.

Mr Main said: "The staff would have known he did not have the capacity to put his name down to engage with a medical officer. It should have been pushed more."

Mr Main, who described seeing Mr Smyth writhing in agony on his cell floor, also told the inquest how the north Belfast man was given two paracetamol for his pain at one point, as well as 'deep heat' for the pain in his legs.

The inquest heard how Mr Smyth's general state and personal hygiene began to deteriorate as early as 2007 as he avoided interaction with other inmates and locked himself more and more in his cell with his pet budgies, sleeping in the daytime and playing computer games through the night.

Officials even had to take the unusual step of organising "deep cleans" of his cell, due to the extreme conditions he was living in.

By 2012, prison staff had raised "fairly high level" concerns about his well-being and during the spring and summer of 2013 Mr Smyth had been seen and booked in for follow-ups by medical staff, although he missed a number of key appointments.

Mr Main and another prisoner, Steven Brown, were among the only two people Mr Smyth would speak to and it was largely down to their intervention he eventually agreed to go to hospital for the scan which revealed his cancer, the inquest heard.

Mr Brown, speaking on video link from Maghaberry, said "he had given up on life", adding that Mr Smyth's last months amounted to a "year of hell."

Prison officials yesterday described Mr Smyth as a "difficult character".

At one point he told prison governor William McKeown: "All I want is to get out, get a flat, a wee dog and that's me for the rest of my life."

However, added Mr McKeown, he was unwilling to participate and repeatedly failed to turn up to appointments regarding his health and potential release back into society.

Mr Smyth was originally jailed in 1977 and sentenced to life the following year for murder. He was given a tariff of 25 years but after his initial release in 1993 was recalled to prison in 1995 after an incident with his family.

Mr Smyth remained behind bars until his death in 2013, having served a total of 34 years - nine years longer than his original sentence.

The inquest continues.

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