Polmont official tells inquiry of shock at death of ‘respectful’ teen

Robert Wagstaff was found dead in his cell at Polmont Young Offenders' Institution. Picture Michael Gillen.
Robert Wagstaff was found dead in his cell at Polmont Young Offenders' Institution. Picture Michael Gillen.

A top prisons official spoke of his shock and horror at learning of the death of a “respectful, well-manned” teenager who took his life after being transferred to young person’s prison from a secure unit for children.

Robert Wagstaff was found hanged in his cell at Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution, Stirlingshire, just a month after his 18th birthday.

Prison manager Calum McCarthy, 55, told a fatal accident inquiry that when Robert arrived at the YOI in November 2016 he was initially kept in a segregation and rehabilitation unit (SRU) because he had been involved in a violent incident at the secure unit, St Mary’s Kenmure, near Glasgow.

He was later transferred to mainstream accommodation within the jail, where he died two months later, after appearing in court and pleading guilty to assault.

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Mr McCarthy, now an inspector with HM Inspectorate of Prisons, said he knew Robert because he was closely involved with the management of the SRU.

Mr McCarthy said: “He certainly wasn’t what we were expecting from the care home.

“I heard he was quite violent, that there’d been a violent episode, but I never saw that from Robert.

“The reason I remember him is that I don’t usually find young people to be quite so respectful and mannerly as Robert was with me was during his time.”

Mr McCarthy said he had seen Robert only days before his death, while he was carrying out a tour of Iona Hall, Polmont, where Robert was held.

Mr McCarthy said: “He actually approached me to say hello. We had a brief conversation. He said he was fine, he said he was OK.

“I had no idea what was going to happen in the next few days.

“I was quite shocked when I heard he had taken his own life.”

The depute fiscal conducting the inquiry, Rosie Scott, asked: “Was there anything about your dealings with him that gave you the impression that was something that might happen to him?”

Mr McCarthy replied: “No, he gave no indication to me that he wasn’t coping.

“That’s what’s really horrible there, that we didn’t see anything, and he did what he did.”

Residential officer Derek Watson, 49, said he had last seen Robert about 9.00 pm on January 20th, 2017, before his cell was locked for the night.

Mr Watson told the court: “I just said ‘good night, see you tomorrow’. His response was ‘aye, I’m fine’. There was nothing untoward.”

Robert was found dead the next morning.

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Residential officer Jill Morrison, who carried out a 7.30 am cell check, said: “I opened the hatch. I can’t remember if the light in his cell was on or off, or if I turned it on.

“I did a double take because there was nobody in the bed.

“Then I noticed Robert, facing towards me.

“His glasses were perfect on his face.

“I could tell from the minute I looked that he had clearly died some time earlier.”

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The inquiry, at Falkirk Sheriff Court, heard that Robert, from Paisley, Renfrewshire, had not been placed on any special observations within the jail.

Mental health nurse at the jail, Joanne Brogan, said when he was transferred there from St Mary’s on November 14th, 2016, he had denied having any medical history of self-harm or suicidal ideation, past or present.

She said, however, that she had questioned Robert so see if he “could identify any safety factors, such as someone he loved or cared about”.

She said: “Mr Wagstaff was unable to.

“He had been taken into care at an early age due to parental neglect.”

On November 23rd, 2016, a drugs and alcohol case worker who interviewed him in the segregation unit noted he was “struggling with mental health, anxiety, sleep problems and low mood” and referred him to the mental health team.

She arranged to see him again on January 4th, but this did not occur, and when she tried to see him again the day before he killed himself she was “unable to access him for his appointment” because he was on a work party.

Sheriff John Mundy, presiding, was told that solicitors representing Robert’s mother, Maureen Martin, had been forced to pull out from appearing at the inquiry because legal aid had been refused.

Miss Scott, the depute fiscal, said: “The solicitor said his mother would sit in and watch if legal aid wasn’t granted, but she does not appear to be here.”