McWilliams as head of the Northern Ireland Human
Rights Commission could start as she means to go
on by poking under the stone that is Maghaberry
Prison. As closed institutions, prisons have long
been sites of human rights violations. During the
1970s the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern
Ireland Prison Service were partners in crime as
prison staff on a daily basis beat, abused and terrorised
the naked prisoners in their keep.
the blanket protest not every screw who staffed
the nonconforming blocks was a thug. While they
all used the type of coercion permitted by the rule
book to make sure the jail functioned in the face
of determined opposition from political prisoners
who would not consent to British penal policy, there
was a significant body that would do little or nothing
they were not legally permitted to. Some frowned
on the brutality of their colleagues. Despite their
own personal integrity, there was no challenge they
could mount in the face of a NIO endorsed regime
of violence. In the application of violence, prison
staff generally only venture outside the rule of
law to the extent that they are permitted to do
so by their bosses in the NIO. Those prison staff
spunky enough to refuse to acquiesce in the brutality
of their colleagues nevertheless knew it was futile
to speak out against policy made on high.
was the infrequent exception. On one occasion after
a teenage Strabane prisoner had been beaten up in
his cell by a drunken senior prison officer, the
uniformed goon was disciplined and demoted down
the ranks. The backdrop was the ongoing talks between
Cardinal O'Fiaich and the British Government. The
NIO had applied the brakes to the brutality which
was now less rampant. Some basic grade screw, having
got the nod form officialdom, filed a complaint
against his drunken superior. In relation to the
thousands of assaults that occurred in the H-Blocks
during the period, this form of accountability ran
against the grain.
a recent column in the Irish News Sinn Fein's
Jim Gibney highlighted the regime that republican
prisoners currently undergo in Maghaberry.
Roe House 25 republican prisoners are living under
a petty-minded regime, which has all the attitudes
and behaviour of those who ran the H-blocks and
Armagh Women's prison in the dark days of the seventies
and early eighties.
cited in his account the testimony of Michael Rogan
who spent thirteen months on remand in the republican
wing before being released. Gibney complains of
republican prisoners being denied basic entitlements
available to the general prison population. Prisoners
are locked up most of the time and constantly harassed.
Patrick Leonard from Belfast was searched an incredible
forty two times in one week. Months before Gibney
had flagged up the problem, one former West Belfast
prisoner, not long released, told of having been
beaten by prison staff because he had verbally objected
to another prisoner being victimised. There have
also been persistent reports of beatings administered
in the punishment blocks.
petty harassment is a staple feature of the daily
regime. Dolours Price, herself a former republican
prisoner, was on the receiving end of vindictive
prison policy when she attempted to visit a republican
prisoner, John Connolly. The prison authorities
prevented her from entering the visiting room on
the spurious grounds that she had been drinking
excessively. She vehemently disputed this and refused
to leave the visiting room until she had either
been granted the visit with John Connolly or had
been breathalysed. After a two hour stand off the
riot squad arrived and escorted the former IRA hunger
striker from the prison. One newspaper quoted a
prison source as saying of Price, 'she was restrained
by a prison officer on each arm with a third holding
her head and a fourth following behind with a protective
Price dismissed the heavy handed tactics to secure
her removal as a case of old habits dying hard.
More serious in her view was the reason behind the
decision to refuse her entry to the prison. The
main target, she contends, was not her but the prisoners.
She made the point that having arrived early she
had taken a glass of wine with her lunch in a pub
near Maghaberry and then proceeded to the prison.
When refused access she demanded to be breathalysed.
Her request was denied. She then asks:
I was drunk at all or in any way incapable why did
the prison staff hand me my car keys as I left the
prison in the full knowledge that I was going to
drive to Dublin? This was hardly consistent with
being responsible. If I had consumed too much alcohol
as they claimed why did they expose the public to
risk from a drunk driver? They were either lying
about my state or they were criminally negligent
in allowing me to proceed in the state they claimed
I was in. They were lying. Once I was in possession
of my car keys, they could simply have phoned the
police. That they did not, demonstrates that they
knew drink was not the issue here. They knew I was
not above the legal limit. That is why I was refused
a breathalyser and why I was handed my car keys
back. Alleged alcohol misuse was the excuse to put
the boot into the prisoners. What changes?
she arrived home Dolours Price wrote to the prison
governor providing him with a detailed itinerary
of her packed day's activities, inviting him to
point to any available time that could have been
used for purposes of drinking. To date there has
been no reply.
have long been a means for a vindictive prison management
to erode the wellbeing of prisoners. Like the old
tactic employed by the British Home office to demoralise
prisoners held in English jails and their families,
some pretext for refusing a visit could always be
found when the visitor after a long journey arrived
in expectation of seeing a loved one. As Gibney
dog is used to search the visiting area for drugs.
Warders often use its interest in a visitor as an
excuse to end a republican prisoner's visit on the
bogus basis of drug smuggling. Thereafter closed
visits are imposed.
a time when senior prison management can appear
on our TV screens to cry crocodile tears over the
woefully inadequate mechanisms for dealing with
prisoners at risk, the practice of searching for
excuses to deny prisoners contact with their families
belies such professed concern. For the prisoner,
contact with their family can often be the difference
between mental wellbeing and despair. The punitive
and cynical disruption of such contact is both insensitive
and potentially dangerous.
much else has changed for the better in the North
including policing, it reflects poorly on a society
that the antediluvian attitudes of the Northern
Ireland Prison Service remain an obstacle to progress
in terms of establishing an enlightened prison regime.
A modern prison means nothing if those responsible
for managing prisons have mentalities that are better
suited to the dungeons of Victorian Britain. Human
rights advocates should brook no delay in shining
their torch on Maghaberry's penal dustbin.
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