Sandra Kelly, Tracy-Lee Brannigan's mother, leaves an earlier inquest hearing with Brannigan's partner, Carlos D'Amico.

Sandra Kelly, Tracy-Lee Brannigan's mother, leaves an earlier inquest hearing with Brannigan's partner, Carlos D'Amico. Photo: Edwina Pickles

The Deputy State Coroner has recommended NSW prison cells be subject to random searches at afternoon lockdown, after the death of a female inmate highlighted the endemic nature of prison drug use. 

However the coroner rejected the claim that prison guards could have done more to help the woman, finding that a key witness gave misleading evidence, possibly in pursuit of her own agenda of improving the lot of females in custody.

Tracy-Lee Brannigan, 41,died from a heroin overdose at Dillwynia Correctional Centre while locked in her cell on the night of February 24 last year.

Died in custody: Tracy-Lee Brannigan.

Died in custody: Tracy-Lee Brannigan.

The inquest heard that the mother of two, who was just three months from possible release on parole, had battled drug addiction for much of her four-year jail sentence, and was in a "high needs" cell with another drug-addicted inmate.

In handing down his findings in relation to Ms Brannigan's death on Monday, Deputy Coroner Paul MacMahon said there was evidence that 75 per cent of women inmates in NSW had "drug addiction issues".

"The availability of illicit substances in correctional facilities is an endemic problem," he said.

He acknowledged that steps were being taken to address this problem, including random and targeted cell searches, but found that most drug taking occurred after inmates were locked in for the night.

"The evidence ... does suggest that the searching of cells on a random basis, at or shortly after lockdown, would possibly identify additional contraband that had been secreted outside the cell during the day," he said.

"I propose to recommend to the Commissioner of Corrective Services that consideration be given to the conduct of searches of cells on a random basis at that time in addition to the current searching regime."

Mr MacMahon rejected the evidence of Ms Brannigan's cellmate, Lauren Ironside, and a friend who came to visit her on February 24, Kat Armstrong, that she had obviously been affected by drugs on the afternoon before she died.

Ms Armstrong, an activist for the rights of women prisoners, told the inquest that she had loudly "alluded" to Ms Brannigan's drug-affected state in the presence of corrections officers, and that they could not have failed to realise it.

However, a forensic pharmacologist, Dr Judith Perl, examined CCTV footage of Ms Brannigan and was strongly of the opinion that her movements and physical demeanour were not consistent with drug use.

"I accept the evidence of Dr Perl and the five corrections officers," Mr MacMahon said.

"As a friend of Tracy-Lee, had Ms Armstrong really thought she was under the influence of a drug at the time of the visit she would have mentioned that fact to a corrections officer.

"...that she did not do so supports the contention that that was...a reconstruction of events that was developed after Tracy's death.

"It may have been that she was acting out of some misguided agenda of trying to improve the lot of female prisoners."

Mr MacMahon found that Ms Armstrong's own unwillingness to get off drugs was a key cause of of her death.