By Anthony McIntyre (for the Blanket)
Monica McWilliams as head of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission could start as she means to go on by poking under the stone that is Maghaberry Prison. As closed institutions, prisons have long been sites of human rights violations. During the 1970s the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Prison Service were partners in crime as prison staff on a daily basis beat, abused and terrorised the naked prisoners in their keep.
During the blanket protest not every screw who staffed the nonconforming blocks was a thug. While they all used the type of coercion permitted by the rule book to make sure the jail functioned in the face of determined opposition from political prisoners who would not consent to British penal policy, there was a significant body that would do little or nothing they were not legally permitted to. Some frowned on the brutality of their colleagues. Despite their own personal integrity, there was no challenge they could mount in the face of a NIO endorsed regime of violence. In the application of violence, prison staff generally only venture outside the rule of law to the extent that they are permitted to do so by their bosses in the NIO. Those prison staff spunky enough to refuse to acquiesce in the brutality of their colleagues nevertheless knew it was futile to speak out against policy made on high.
There was the infrequent exception. On one occasion after a teenage Strabane prisoner had been beaten up in his cell by a drunken senior prison officer, the uniformed goon was disciplined and demoted down the ranks. The backdrop was the ongoing talks between Cardinal O’Fiaich and the British Government. The NIO had applied the brakes to the brutality which was now less rampant. Some basic grade screw, having got the nod form officialdom, filed a complaint against his drunken superior. In relation to the thousands of assaults that occurred in the H-Blocks during the period, this form of accountability ran against the grain.
In a recent column in the Irish News Sinn Féin’s Jim Gibney highlighted the regime that republican prisoners currently undergo in Maghaberry.
In Roe House 25 republican prisoners are living under a petty-minded regime, which has all the attitudes and behaviour of those who ran the H-blocks and Armagh Women’s prison in the dark days of the seventies and early eighties.
Gibney cited in his account the testimony of Michael Rogan who spent thirteen months on remand in the republican wing before being released. Gibney complains of republican prisoners being denied basic entitlements available to the general prison population. Prisoners are locked up most of the time and constantly harassed. Patrick Leonard from Belfast was searched an incredible forty two times in one week. Months before Gibney had flagged up the problem, one former West Belfast prisoner, not long released, told of having been beaten by prison staff because he had verbally objected to another prisoner being victimised. There have also been persistent reports of beatings administered in the punishment blocks.
Ongoing petty harassment is a staple feature of the daily regime. Dolours Price, herself a former republican prisoner, was on the receiving end of vindictive prison policy when she attempted to visit a republican prisoner, John Connolly. The prison authorities prevented her from entering the visiting room on the spurious grounds that she had been drinking excessively. She vehemently disputed this and refused to leave the visiting room until she had either been granted the visit with John Connolly or had been breathalysed. After a two hour stand off the riot squad arrived and escorted the former IRA hunger striker from the prison. One newspaper quoted a prison source as saying of Price, ‘she was restrained by a prison officer on each arm with a third holding her head and a fourth following behind with a protective riot shield.’
Dolours Price dismissed the heavy handed tactics to secure her removal as a case of old habits dying hard. More serious in her view was the reason behind the decision to refuse her entry to the prison. The main target, she contends, was not her but the prisoners. She made the point that having arrived early she had taken a glass of wine with her lunch in a pub near Maghaberry and then proceeded to the prison. When refused access she demanded to be breathalysed. Her request was denied. She then asks:
If I was drunk at all or in any way incapable why did the prison staff hand me my car keys as I left the prison in the full knowledge that I was going to drive to Dublin? This was hardly consistent with being responsible. If I had consumed too much alcohol as they claimed why did they expose the public to risk from a drunk driver? They were either lying about my state or they were criminally negligent in allowing me to proceed in the state they claimed I was in. They were lying. Once I was in possession of my car keys, they could simply have phoned the police. That they did not, demonstrates that they knew drink was not the issue here. They knew I was not above the legal limit. That is why I was refused a breathalyser and why I was handed my car keys back. Alleged alcohol misuse was the excuse to put the boot into the prisoners. What changes?
When she arrived home Dolours Price wrote to the prison governor providing him with a detailed itinerary of her packed day’s activities, inviting him to point to any available time that could have been used for purposes of drinking. To date there has been no reply.
Visits have long been a means for a vindictive prison management to erode the wellbeing of prisoners. Like the old tactic employed by the British Home office to demoralise prisoners held in English jails and their families, some pretext for refusing a visit could always be found when the visitor after a long journey arrived in expectation of seeing a loved one. As Gibney pointed out:
A dog is used to search the visiting area for drugs. Warders often use its interest in a visitor as an excuse to end a republican prisoner’s visit on the bogus basis of drug smuggling. Thereafter closed visits are imposed.
At a time when senior prison management can appear on our TV screens to cry crocodile tears over the woefully inadequate mechanisms for dealing with prisoners at risk, the practice of searching for excuses to deny prisoners contact with their families belies such professed concern. For the prisoner, contact with their family can often be the difference between mental wellbeing and despair. The punitive and cynical disruption of such contact is both insensitive and potentially dangerous.
When much else has changed for the better in the North including policing, it reflects poorly on a society that the antediluvian attitudes of the Northern Ireland Prison Service remain an obstacle to progress in terms of establishing an enlightened prison regime. A modern prison means nothing if those responsible for managing prisons have mentalities that are better suited to the dungeons of Victorian Britain. Human rights advocates should brook no delay in shining their torch on Maghaberry’s penal dustbin.