It was confirmed yesterday that Magilligan Prison in County Derry is to be replaced with a new jail.
The North’s Prison Service chief Robin Masefield said a fundamental review being undertaken would “confirm the unsuitability of the existing prison”.
Magilligan prison became severely crowded following the closure of Long Kesh prison outside Lisburn. It was the subject of controversy for many years over the failure of prison authorities to segregate loyalist and republican prisoners. The abuse of republican prisoners by prison warders remains a major human rights issue.
Amid official suggestions that the new prison be built somewhere in the [predominately unionist] Ballymena area, Mr Masefield insisted no decision on location had been made, but said the existing site had its problems.
“Magilligan is somewhat isolated in terms of its relationship with the rest of the Prison Service. Also, it is difficult for families to visit inmates, it’s difficult for us sometimes to do the work we want to do with prisoners, it’s difficult for them perhaps to pursue the resettlement agenda,” he said.
The Prison Office Association chief, Finlay Spratt, said the service should spend money on upgrading the existing 30-year-old jail, not building a new facility.
“In my opinion it is just a waste of public money,” he said, and accused the Northern Ireland Office of being “hell bent on centralisation and taking things away from the north-west”.
The site of Long Kesh prison, most famous for the 1981 hungers strikes, is currently under redevelopment.
Sinn Féin’s Raymond McCartney and Councillor Paul Butler have been appointed to the Long Kesh Advisory Panel, which is to decide on the plans for the site.
In a joint statement, the representatives said the site had “huge potential”. However, the party would not support any development plan that did not give equal priority to the development of a heritage and peace zone and a multi-sports stadium, key elements of a so-called “master plan”.
“Events in Long Kesh have helped shape the recognition and understanding of the political nature of the conflict here,” they said. “It has witnessed much grief and pain for all those who passed through it and for their families and relatives.”
“The international heritage and peace zone can act as a beacon of hope to all communities and societies emerging from political conflict and support the process of conflict resolution both nationally and internationally.”
Plans are also afoot to redevelop the vacant Crumlin Road gaol in north Belfast, with many seeking to capitalise on its 160-year history.
The bleak stone structure opened in 1845 during The Famine, and remained in use throughout the recent Troubles before officially closing in 1996.
While Long Kesh is often compared to South Africa’s Robben Island, ‘The Crum’, as it became known, is being compared to America’s Alcatraz.
Within the prison grounds the bodies of 15 of the 17 men executed remain in unmarked graves.
IRA member Tom Williams was executed in the prison in 1942. His remains were only recently exhumed and reburied in Milltown Cemetery.
A tunnel links the prison with the nearby Crumlin Road courthouse. It is estimated 25,000 prisoners were led along it during the recent conflict.
In 1981, eight IRA prisoners used guns smuggled into the complex to hold prison officers hostage before shooting their way out.
SF CONCERN FOR PRISONERS
Prisoners have mounted protests about the sitution amid fears for their general wellbeing.
Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris called for action on the situation by the Prison Governor. He said he believed that a failure to act could lead to further protest action by republican prisoners.
“This can be resolved if there is a willingness on behalf of the prison authorities. Republican prisoners have the right to live in a safe environment,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Sinn Féin leadership has established a campaign group to seek the release of republican prisoners. The group is to meet in the weeks ahead to devise a campaign strategy for the release of all republican prisoners.