THE ongoing protest by republican prisoners in Maghaberry will be stepped up if Justice Minister David Ford does not implement the full terms of the August 2010 Roe House agreement.
Representatives of the support group Family and Friends of Republican Prisoners in Maghaberry were speaking to the Andersonstown News as inmates in the prison’s republican Roe House wing continue their no-wash protest at the continued use of full body strip-searching by prison authorities. The Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) claim the use of full body strip-searching is “essential” for security reasons, an argument dismissed by the prisoners and their supporters, who say the inflammatory practice never guaranteed prison security in the past.
It has also been alleged that some long-serving prison officers are using full body strip-searching as “an opportunity to even old scores” against republicans.
The August 2010 Roe House agreement, which was struck between the republican prisoners and prison authorities with the help of independent facilitators, did away with full body strip-searching in the prison in favour of the non-invasive BOSS chair scanner and other technology-based procedures. The agreement also allowed for a gradual reduction in controlled movement for republicans within Roe House.
However, that agreement was to break down only a month later after prison authorities claimed it did not cover strip-searching in the reception area of Maghaberry Prison as prisoners were leaving and entering the facility.
The ensuing stand-off with the prison authorities over the issue, say supporters and relatives, has led to nearly 200 forced strip-searches on republicans inmates and the beating of prisoners who refuse to submit to strip-searching. It also saw the start of the latest no-wash protest, in May 2011.
Tensions have escalated to such an extent that the prison’s riot squad now permanently mans part of the wing in place of regular prison officers.
Brendy Conway of Family and Friends of Republican Prisoners in Maghaberry, himself a prisoner in Maghaberry at the time of the Roe House agreement and who helped negotiate that agreement on behalf of the prisoners, said the problem has become so bad that prisoners are “looking into the abyss”.
“Nothing has given rise to any hope at this stage that this can be resolved,” said Brendy. “The prisoners believed that they had been given cast-iron guaranteed commitments by the [prison] administration to do away with the strip-searching completely and to relax controlled movement within a given time-frame. It was also the understanding of the facilitators that that was the case. However, the Prison Service have now made it quite clear to the facilitators that the August 12 agreement did not cover strip-searching in the reception area. Had we known that we would never have signed the agreement.
“Since May 5, the protest has increased. We have a situation now where we have prisoners on various forms of protest – some are on dirty protest and some guys are not, due to health reasons and age. We are looking into the abyss.”
Former blanketman Alex McCrory, also of Family and Friends of Republican Prisoners in Maghaberry, said that elements within the prison and the NIPS “began to work against the agreement” immediately after it was agreed upon by the relevant parties.
“Strip-searching was re-introduced after the agreement within a very short time and progress on controlled movement was stalled to a snail’s pace,” said Alex. “The prisoners would refuse to comply with the strip-searching as they said it was in breach of the agreement and this then led to forcible strip-searching. Since August 2010 there have been almost 200 forced strip-searches in the prison, leading to countless injuries to prisoners. These searches are very aggressive, involving four to six screws dressed in riot gear wielding shields and batons. Prisoners are beaten to the ground. They have restraining locks applied to their joints and their clothes are forcibly removed. On at least two occasions clothes have been cut off from their bodies using scissors. Several prisoners have received injuries as a result of that. In relation to controlled movement, in Maghaberry today there is a ratio of three screws to one prisoner and five screws to two prisoners. In Long Kesh you had a ratio of two screws to thirty-plus men on a wing with unrestricted movement. The history of republican wings tells us that prison staff are safe when points of conflict are removed. That is the situation that we find ourselves in at present.”
Alex said the facilitators who helped broker the initial Roe House agreement have told the Friends and Family group that a “a blockage in the system at a very senior level” is preventing the full implementation of the terms agreed in August 2010. He added that long-serving prison guards were the main instigators of the “hassle” the prisoners were getting.
“They [the independent facilitators] said that there are people within the system that are totally opposed to the ending of full body strip-searching for the purposes of security even though there is new technology available that makes a full body strip-search obsolete and unnecessary.
“Certain protestors are singled out, such as Colin Duffy [Lurgan] and Harry Fitzsimons [Ballymurphy], men who have a history going back to Long Kesh. There is a sense that some prison guards are getting their own back now for what happened in the past. They have this old mindset and unfortunately Maghaberry affords them the opportunity to even old scores.”
The current no-wash protest involves some 35 prisoners aligned to different republican groups who are refusing to wash, shave or have their hair cut.
“For example, on the top landing you have ONH [Óglaigh na hÉireann]-aligned and RSF [Republican Sinn Féin]-aligned prisoners who are putting their human waste on the walls,” explained Alex. “On the bottom landing, prisoners aligned to the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and independent prisoners are putting their human waste on to the landing. Although there are differences in tactics, there is a full protest at present.”
Alex added that current conditions for prisoners in Roe House are “extremely harsh” and the atmosphere within the wing is “extremely hostile and tense”.
“The bottom landing, which holds 14 of the protestors, is being run by the prison riot squad in full riot gear so the ordinary screws have effectively been withdrawn,” he said. “The prisoners are searched leaving the cell, outside the cell and on returning to the cell. The screws in the riot squad are trained to be aggressive and in-your-face so there has been an awful lot of hostility and tension which the prisoners live with on a daily basis. There is always potential for a flare-up because of the tense relationship between the prisoners and the riot squad. A few of the prisoners have been in jail before and a sizeable number have been in the Kesh, but for the vast majority of them this is their first time in jail. There are no former blanketmen there, so this would be their first experience of these types of conditions and they find it very, very difficult to cope with, but they are very determined to see the agreement implemented in full.”
NIPS claims that the use of full body strip-searches is essential for security reasons have been rubbished by the Friends and Family group.
“As ex-prisoners, we can tell you that that’s complete nonsense,” said Alex. “A full body strip-search never guaranteed prison security. On the blanket protest we were able to bring in thousands of comms, tobacco, radios and God knows what else despite a full body strip-search and mirror search. The full body strip-search is about control and domination, it’s as simple as that. It’s the first contact that the prisoner has with the system and in the first contact you have with that system you are compelled to remove your clothing and stand naked before three or four grown men. The ironic thing is that the technology that we are proposing probably enhances security rather than compromises security.”
The support group backs the implementation of the recommendations of the recent independent review into the Northern Ireland Prison Service by Dame Anne Owers, in which she found the Prison Service here to be “dysfunctional” and “ineffective”.
“She recommends that the Prison service as a whole gets other forms of search procedures in place other than full body strip-searching,” said Alex.
“She says there are new technologies that would render the full body strip-search absolutely unnecessary and describes the practice as ‘an invasion of privacy and intrusive’. That report was released two months ago but [Justice Minister] David Ford is saying that it could take two years to implement her recommendations.”
The two men say that prisoners feel that they are not getting “the type of support they deserve from former friends and comrades who should know better and who have been through this whole experience before”.
“Sinn Féin have met with the prisoners on several occasions and met with our group on several occasions and we have discussed the issues inside-out,” said Alex.
“They have made numerous public statements calling on David Ford to implement the agreement, but unfortunately that is not enough. We believe there has to be some sort of meaningful political action following on from these statements. The DUP are the main obstacle to the implementation of this agreement so there has to be a counter to that. The Family and Friends group are calling on Sinn Féin to use their political strength in a positive way to counter the DUP on this issue and to bring a speedy resolution to this problem.”
Alex accepts that the lack of outside interest in the protest could be because it involves prisoners from micro-republican groups.
“To a large extent that is the case, but I also think that people don’t like the idea of the past coming back to haunt them,” he said.
“The situation is bad at the moment and it is difficult to see how the protest can be escalated without something drastic coming into play. Obviously that’s not something that’s being talked about by prisoners or the organisations they align to, but we are talking about a situation here where prisoners are living in their own waste. Now I spent two and a half years on the blanket protest and it cannot get any worse than that. They are under enormous pressure in terms of the physical conditions in which they find themselves and because of that, that puts enormous pressure on the men’s families.”
Brendy Conway added that the prisoners “are not looking anything that was not already agreed as far back as August 2010”.
“Going into 2012 we have prisoners still on dirty protest and locked down 23 hours a day and people going through lengthy trials who are being forcibly stripped twice a day, such as Colin Duffy,” said Brendy.
“The ball’s in their court. To quote the facilitators, an hour could sort this out.”
A spokesperson for the NIPS said the service has “consistently maintained that full body searching on entering and exiting any prison is essential to preserve the security of the establishment and the safety of other prisoners, staff and the wider community in line with practice in other jurisdictions throughout Europe”. The spokesperson continued: “A search facility for separated prisoners at Maghaberry, incorporating a BOSS chair, has been operational since November 17, 2010. In line with the August 2010 agreement, there is no longer any requirement for routine rub-down searching within the separated wings, except where a prisoner is being moved out of the wing. However, the BOSS chair cannot detect non-metallic items. NIPS believes that the existing arrangements are consistent with the August agreement and remains committed to the implementation of the agreement. This position was upheld by the courts when it was challenged by judicial review earlier this year.
“In line with Dame Anne Owers’ recommendation that we should seek an alternative to ‘full body searching’ in her review of NIPS, we are currently researching what, if any, other alternative technologies are available. To date, no viable alternative has been identified.”
Asked about the deployment of the prison riot squad at sections of Roe House in place of regular prison guards, the NIPS spokesperson added: “Members of the NIPS Dedicated Search Team are currently deployed to Roe House at Maghaberry prison for operational reasons, but this arrangement is kept under review by the Governor.
“There is a complaints procedure in place, in particular the Prisoner Ombudsman, should any prisoner believe that NIPS staff have behaved inappropriately.”