Republican prisoners at Portlaoise Prison are planning to begin a ‘dirty protest’ for political status within the next two weeks. Meanwhile, protest plans are underway at Maghaberry jail in the North following a reported sexual assault.

The Portlaoise prisoners’ dispute with Dublin’s Department of Justice escalated last week when a 23- hour lockdown was imposed. Prisoners were reported to have been locked in their cells for the morning and denied food last week, then were verbally and physically assaulted by the prison guards on their release in the afternoon. One male prisoner was also said to have been so brutally strip-searched and verbally taunted that he is seeking counselling for sexual assault.

The latest incident has followed complaints that mail has been withheld and family members abused at visting times.

In the jail in the Irish midlands, republican prisoners lost all privileges for a month as punishment for staging a protest over the treatment of ‘Real IRA’ leader Michael McKevitt.

Tensions have been high in the prison since McKevitt, who is serving a 20-year term at the jail in controversial circumstances, chose not to attend his mother’s funeral after he was required to attned handcuffed and under an armed escort.

Justice officials said that the lockdown would continue until the prisoners agreed to end a limited protest in which they were refusing to go back to their cells.

Paschal Bourke, the officer who was commanding the prisoners until his release three weeks ago, said: “The protest will now escalate. A dirty protest is a serious possibility.”

The 23 prisoners are allowed out of their cells for just one hour each day. They no longer have rights to visits, phone calls or access to the prison shop.

The dispute began over the ending of an agreement in which prisoners were allowed normal compassionate parole for critical family events, such as funerals.

The prisoners have accused the department of having “reneged on its commitments”, claiming that it has acted in bad faith and has attacked their status as “political prisoners”.

The prison service, however, is claiming that no agreement was ever reached with the prisoners. When pressed about the sudden change in the arrangements for McKevitt, the spokesman said he would not discuss individual cases.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News