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Portlaoise Prison And Compassionate Parole

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.
Anthony McIntyre • 20 May 2004

Portlaoise 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 Dublin’s 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.

Over 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.

Every 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.

The 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.

It 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 never explained.

But 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.

When 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 mother’s situation were to deteriorate or if she were to die, his release would be a mere formality.

Three 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.

In 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.

Aghast 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?’

What 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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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

21 May 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


Portlaoise Prison and Compassionate Parole
Anthony McIntyre


New Republican Protest Looms in Maghaberry
Martin Mulholland, IRPWA


Computer Enchanced?
George Young


A Comic Apology?
M. Shahid Alam


Lessons from Vietnam
Liam O Ruairc


16 May 2004

When Friends Die in Distant Places
Anthony McIntyre


The Murder Machine in Ireland then, Tibet now
Seaghán Ó Murchú


Green Unionists
Brian Mór


Holylands Community Report says Parking, Litter and Marching Season Are Major concerns
Seán Mc Aughey


Progressive Unionist Party
Rebuttal of the
First Report of the International Monitoring Commission

Progressive Unionist Party


Varieties of barbarism : from Fallujah to "free trade" in Latin America
Toni Solo




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