Former Armagh jail governor shamed
BY FERN LANE
A former governor of Armagh jail, Tom Murtagh, has been fiercely criticised by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in a report published last Thursday into a disastrous raid last May at Blantyre House in Kent. A highly regarded and progressive resettlement prison, Blantyre House was brought to the brink of anarchy by the raid and trust and morale have since been permanently undermined.
Senior managers, including Murtagh, the Area Manager supervising 13 prisons housing 6,277 inmates, decided that despite the fact that the prison has the lowest re-offending rates in the British prison service, the system in force was too liberal. Murtagh told the prison's education manager that prisoners ``were not to be trusted because they were all beyond redemption''. The report notes: ``Even if Tom Murtagh was fully committed to resettlement as practised at Blantyre House - which, frankly we find difficult to believe - he failed to convey that impression to some of those who worked near him. In fact, he gave very much the opposite impression to others and to us.''
As a means of achieving a regime more to his liking, Murtagh, with the knowledge of the director general of the prison service, Martin Narey, and home office minister Paul Boateng, staged a cell raid using prison staff in full riot gear. This was on the wholly unfounded premise that there was ``a quite frightening amount of contraband'' in the jail. Of the 100 items confiscated, almost all turned out to be perfectly legal. Prisoners were strip-searched, deliberately provoked and innocent documents were confiscated.
There are also continuing allegations of bullying against Murtagh, particularly in his relationship with the then governor of Blantyre House, Eoin McLennan-Murray. Murtagh refused to answer questions on the matter himself when summoned by the Home Affairs Committee, preferring instead to let his superior, Martin Narey, speak for him. The report states that the Board of Visitors was particularly concerned about Murtagh's behaviour, saying: ``We were worried about the state of bullying of the governor... the pressure being put on him amounted to bullying.'' McLennan-Murray was removed from his post by Murtagh on the day of the raid.
The report concludes that the raid was a ``failure, aggravated by unnecessary damage''. It says it was ``heavy handed, unplanned, unjustified, unfocused and should not have happened''. It goes on to accuse almost everyone involved in the raid, up to and including Murtagh, Narey and Boateng of ``misleading'' the committee. ``We do not believe the reasons given to us justify the exceptional search or the way in which it was carried out,'' it concludes.
Murtagh, however, has a long history of similar behaviour, a record which stretched back almost 20 years before it finally came to the attention of the House of Commons. The allegations of bullying, intimidation and the use of heavy-handed cell raids carried out for purely political reasons, have come as no surprise to former POW Geraldine Crawford, who was in Armagh prison when Tom Murtagh arrived there as governor in 1982. Murtagh was personally responsible for the introduction of the forcible strip searching of women prisoners, of daily lock-up sessions, the use of solitary confinement as punishment for women who attempted to defend themselves from assault during cell raids, and for the failed efforts at integration of republican and loyalist prisoners within Armagh jail.
In the general atmosphere of intimidation which prevailed in Armagh under his governorship, Geraldine recalls one incident in particular when a fellow POW was, as she puts it, ``ambushed'' by prison officers, including men, as she returned from a court appearance. A towel was thrown over her head and she was pinned to the floor and spread-eagled by four members of staff while others forcibly removed her clothes. Male staff waited nearby. She described the incident as akin to rape. Murtagh's response was interesting. ``He told us that he couldn't understand why we found strip-searching so upsetting'' Geraldine told An Phoblacht. ``He said that his daughters walked around naked at home all the time so he couldn't see what the problem was''.
Murtagh continued undisturbed with his favoured techniques in Armagh and took them into the next stage of his prison service career. The Home Affairs Committee report, however, did not discuss Murtagh's previous record. The policy that proved so disastrous and unjustified in Blantyre House and which has been the subject of the most severe criticism was, it seems, totally acceptable when unleashed against republican POWs.