By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
There are 32 republican prisoners in Roe House in Maghaberry Prison living in appalling conditions and one prisoner, Liam Hannaway, has been on hunger strike in another part of the prison for the past month.
The prisoners in Roe House are being subjected to a regime that seems not to have learned the history lesson from the H-Blocks and Armagh women’s prison in the 19705 and 1980s. The essential and important difference between then and now is that the prisoners have their own clothes, live in segregated conditions and there is no British government-sponsored campaign trying to criminalise them.
That to one side, there is a common denominator and that is the attitude of the prison administration and in particular the Prison Officers Association towards the prisoners. Incredible though it might seem with all the political changes that have taken place in the last decade and a hall that has delivered new politics on this island, the six counties’ prison regime remains untouched and behaves as if it is a law unto itself.
The prisoners are held in practically 24-hour cellular confinement. The rare times they are out of their cells they are subject to controlled movement by prison officers.
Between 9am and lOam breakfast is available. Each prisoner, on his own. is forced to eat his breakfast standing in the canteen and each prisoner is strictly allocated 15 minutes each to do so.
This time limit means that not all prisoners get breakfast. The same restrictions apply to dinner and to tea.
The end result of this is the prisoners exist on a reduced diet. The prisoners are also subjected to a time-limited rota when washing which also results in many of them not being washed daily or adequately. Some have decided not to shave so infrequently have they washed. Under prison rules a prisoner is entitled to an hour of exercise per day but the warders twist the rules to ensure there are barriers in place to block access to it. The prisoner is forced to choose between using the gym, having breakfast, having a wash or exercising in the yard.
A deterioration of conditions led to the prisoners on protest damaging their cells including the cell toilet. This has led to the situation where nightly the prisoners are pouring urine out of their cells underneath their cell doors. Their human waste is placed in a bag and left on the prison landing where it is collected by warders.
The prisoners are strip-searched excessively especially before and after visits with relatives. A refusal to be strip-searched - which means the removal of all one’s clothes followed by a naked-body search - results in the prisoner being denied his visit and punished for disobeying an order from a prison officer.
Last Friday three prisoners experienced this treatment. Warders also abuse prison rule 23 which gives them the power to arbitrarily remove a prisoner they view as ‘difficult’ and put him or her in isolation. One republican prisoner was over a week in isolation as of last Friday.
These are the circumstances a Sinn Fein delegation met when they visited the prison last week to speak with the prisoners. Of the five-person delegation, three were former political prisoners. It included MLAs Raymond McCartney, Caral Ni Chuilin, Paul Maskey and John O’Dowd and director of the ex-political prisoner organisation Coiste na nlarchimi Michael Culbert.
The delegation met Liam Hannaway and 10 of the prisoners held in Roe House. The meetings were cordial and focused on the prison conditions and the background to the dispute.
The delegation also met the head of the prison service in the north, Maghaberry’s governor and prison staff. To all they stressed that the rights of the prisoners must be respected. They found the senior prison staff receptive to their views. Resolving this unacceptable situation should be high on the agenda of new minister for justice David Ford.
It is welcome news that the minister has decided to carry out a review of the north’s prisons beginning with Maghaberry but in the short term the situation at the prison urgently needs to be resolved.