Prison is a foreboding place. The town which provides
the jail with its name goes about its daily business
seemingly nonchalant about its dirty little secret.
Whatever the Celtic Tiger has brought to Ireland,
the prison population has seen little of it. Looking
at some of Dublins modern architecture, its
millennium bridge, the shiny (albeit ridiculous) Spire,
or even the new motorway which shortens the journey
time from Belfast to Dublin considerably, the one
thought they all manage to prompt is how an aesthetically
challenged eye sore like Portlaoise Prison manages
to stand in a society which has grown fond of proclaiming
its modernity. Its design is inscribed with all the
dull imagination of a mind more used to the Satanic
mills of Lancashire than Le Corbusier's Switzerland
or France. As a relic of how things used to be in
the olden days, it might serve some purpose, but as
a modern institution purpose-built to house humanely
those the state has pronounced no longer at liberty,
it is an incongruous absurdity.
the past thirty years, Portlaoise Prison has been
the site of hunger strikes, protests, jail breaks
and violence perpetrated by prison staff. It has also
seen one prisoner shot dead. And a senior member of
prison staff met a similar fate although not in the
prison itself but undoubtedly in response to the oppression
that went on within its walls. It was a place apart,
where those who 'have no rights' - as Paddy Cooney
while a serving justice minister framed it - were
incarcerated. Long before the conflict that produced
the present spate of political prisoners the jail
was notorious for the misery it produced behind its
walls, on one occasion in the 1940s outraging a public
when it saw the conditions republicans were forced
to endure at the hands of their former comrades.
so often periods of quietude break out only to be
punctuated by more of what the jail is better known
for. Tonight, buried out of public view republican
prisoners enjoy their last night of normal
prison privileges. When they get out of their beds
tomorrow morning, they will be confined to cells and
denied the ability to associate with each other, their
visits will be reduced to one a month, they will experience
curtailment of mail and will be denied all phone calls.
Their food will be handed to them in the same cells
in which they perform all other bodily functions.
There are no in-cell sanitation facilities. Modern
Ireland invites its prison population to squat in
a corner of a dank cell in order to relieve the bowels.
Perhaps Reginald Maudling, when he called for a large
Scotch and muttered what a bloody awful country,
was more discerning that any of us imagined.
heavy hand of prison discipline has settled on the
republican prisoners of Portlaoise because they, in
time-honoured fashion, have sought to defend the conditions
that they and their predecessors have helped attain
over the decades at great cost. Because the prisoners
have decided to engage in passive resistance to protest
their abhorrence at the manner in which the Dublin
Government is abusing the practice of compassionate
parole, the same government has decided to lock horns
with them in a battle of wills. A body politic steeped
in corruption seems to think that one last dark corner
where it can set up a shebeen for the licentious exercise
of unaccountable power is the prison.
seems incredible that the old adage of let well
be alone cannot manage to percolate down into
the decision making bureaucracy that runs Southern
prisons. For the past couple of years, republican
prisoners availed of the opportunity for compassionate
parole when close family members were gravely ill.
Things did not always run smoothly. For reasons known
only to it, the administration has from time to time
subverted the understanding between itself and prisoners.
In 2001 Ballymurphy republican Danny McAllister had
to hunger strike over being denied the ability to
visit seriously ill family members. Later in the year
when Damien Lawless - who was a matter of mere weeks
from his final release - was refused parole to visit
his child who had been struck down by meningitis,
his comrades staged a protest within the jail. The
authorities with typical vindictive and violent gusto
sent in the riot squad. Many prisoners were beaten,
and some were rendered unconscious. Families of the
men inside took up the baton and after a series of
representations the government said that it would
revert back to the normal procedures for compassionate
parole. Why it ever violated them to begin with was
because of the tendency for the government to breach
its understandings the prisoners opted to push for
something more codified. After much procrastination,
the government responded in early 2003. It reaffirmed
the conditions that had previously prevailed. Things
settled down. But not for long.
Michael McKevitt applied for compassionate parole
to visit his mother who was in her 80s and very frail,
he was refused. The government stated that his mother
was not gravely ill although her condition was such
that she could not visit the prison and as her hearing
had deteriorated, her son could no longer phone her.
When she suffered a major stroke in April Michael
McKevitt received parole. He was out on the strength
of his own republican bond for a period of two days
and honoured all conditions. On his return to prison
he was told that if his mothers situation were
to deteriorate or if she were to die, his release
would be a mere formality.
weeks later his mother did die. The undertaker contacted
the prison providing it with the details of the funeral
arrangements. Despite pledges that the parole would
be granted without delay, the prison service dallied.
Growing alarmed at the lack of movement throughout
the day the imprisoned republican's wife Bernadette
pressed for a response to his parole application.
She stated that she met with disdain and insensitivity.
Eventually, the prison service offered parole on the
following conditions. Michael McKevitt would be taken
under armed escort to Dundalk Garda station where
he would be placed in the custody of armed police
and taken to pay his respects before being returned
to prison. The same procedure would apply to parole
on the day of the funeral. It was intimated to the
family that if Michael McKevitt were to attend the
wake house, it would be searched in advance of his
arrival. Not surprisingly he refused to take parole.
response to the arbitrary nature of decision making
the prisoners in Portlaoise embarked upon a campaign
of passive protest. They refused to lock up at night.
Initially the prison staff responded by locking the
grills at the end of the wing. Later they came in
and lifted the prisoners and carried them to their
cells. On Monday the 18th senior prison managemant
approached the prisoners and said it wanted the protest
brought to a satisfactory conclusion and to that end
would like to meet with the relatives of the prisoners.
The imprisoned men first secured an undertaking from
the administration that it was serious about resolving
the conflict before agreeing that their families would
trek off to a meeting with government officials. As
a sign of their goodwill the prisoners decided to
suspend their protest and to create a rancour-free
backdrop against which talks could take place. When
the relatives met with prison officials on Tuesday
they were told bluntly to go back and tell the prisoners
to end their protest or the prison staff would escalate
their punitive response.
at such obstinacy, the republican prisoners resumed
their passive protest. June Carroll whose son is in
the prison is now deeply worried about what lies ahead.
She complained bitterly about the way the administration
had left prisoners with no option but to protest to
protect hard won gains such as the highly sensitive
right to compassionate parole. She said of the brazen
insensitivity displayed in relation to Michael McKevitt
that it was an affront to human dignity: how
are grief stricken relatives supposed to explain something
like that to their children waiting on their father
to join them for the funeral of their grandmother?
possible reason other than vindictiveness or gross
incompetence does the Dublin government have for failing
to inject predictability and consistency into the
procedures governing the matter of compassionate parole?
What happened in the three weeks between Michael McKevitt
being granted parole, unaccompanied, and the death
of his mother that would justify the government insisting
that he could only attend the funeral under armed
guard? Such whimsical and arbitrary decision making
is not only unjust but is certain to impregnate relations
between prisoners and prison management with tension.
Prison is not a stress free environment at the best
of times. Why make it more volatile through decisions
that enhance neither security, morale nor staff-prisoner
relations, and seem only to massage the self-importance
of those who think they do not really have power if
it is not accompanied by an ability to abuse it?
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