By Anthony McIntyre (the Pensive Quill)
A number of years ago, in discussion with a former governor of a Scottish prison, he relayed a conversation that took place between him and a Glasgow prisoner during his time in charge at Peterhead Prison, notorious for its cages. The Glaswegian told him that the only difference between the two was ‘your gang is bigger than mine.’ This conversation came back to me on learning of the visit by British micro minister for Justice David Ford to Maghaberry Prison. What justice did he advance? Why did he even bother going there? He was photographed with the prison’s best organised gang - the screws. The prisoners in Maghaberry may well be doing the public a service by keeping the screws off society’s streets but it comes at a considerable price as explained by Turloch McAllister who is serving a sentence for republican activity:
“Regarding human rights, there is a lot of talk about a new dispensation and we are supposed to be ‘dripping’ in Human Rights legislation but I could not see any as I was being kicked in the face by the riot squad and forced, face first, onto a urine covered floor and told to strip naked or I’d get more of the same. All my clothes and footwear bar what I had on me have been taken from my cell and I am expected to believe that nobody knows what happened to them. These riot squad members wear no identification numbers.”
According to one source the British official was escorted along the republican wing by around 20 screws. The wing had been cleaned in advance of his visit and he was invited to inspect an empty and undamaged cell where he was most unlikely to hear any complaints. Republican prisoners banging on the door - in the time honoured fashion of the blanket men anytime a British official ventured onto their wings - were ignored as the Minister for Justice strutted with the unjust. He left the prison without speaking to those who have complained most about it, conversing only with those against whom the complaints have been made.
As Ford was on his way into the jail accompanied by a number of officials and a sizeable PSNI presence, the father of a republican prisoner was on his way out having just visited his son. Jim McAllister noticed David Ford entering the prison by a different door. If Ford noticed Jim McAllister he made no attempt to speak with him; as indifferent to prisoners’ families as he was to the prisoners it would seem.
On a previous visit Jim McAllister noticed how his son’s left cheek and nose were badly discoloured. His son had also told him that his back and side were of a similar state. This was the result of a beating handed out by the thugs David Ford seemed so eager to be photographed with. Turloch McAllister later made the following comments:
“We have been on protest here since Easter over degrading strip searches and over-zealous use of controlled movement which means that for one of us to move on the wing takes four or five screws. We are locked up twenty three hours a day. It would not take much goodwill on the prison services’ behalf to resolve this as we are prepared to meet anybody with a solution half way.
“I am writing this note at two in the morning having just been wakened by screws making as much noise as possible and shining a lamp in my face. This happens to me and every other man here every couple of hours meaning that we are getting no proper sleep. A new form of human rights. Between beatings and lack of sleep I wonder is this the year 2010 or 1810.”
As former republican prisoner and victim of screw violence, Gerard Hodgins said, David Ford ‘hiding behind a Prison Officers Association gang just to get his photograph taken on a republican wing is no substitute for engagement.’ Glad handing it with the thugs responsible for what happened to Turloch McAllister and his fellow republican prisoners combined with his earlier statement that the prisoners were only seeking publicity, engenders memories of old when screws were given government license to beat at will.
With so much political and media noise being made stressing the need to avoid any return to the bad old days, it is ironic that the Minister of Justice should remain silent in the company of those determined to take Northern society right back into the middle of its darkness.