Prison lessons have not been learnt

By Fr Des Wilson (for the Andersonstown News)

The situation in Maghaberry prison is serious. According to believable reports there is tension, abuse and threat.

When anyone is put in prison, the penalty is losing freedom, losing the ability to make and carry out decisions about your own life, losing freedom of movement, the ability to communicate with others when and how and wherever we wish. That penalty is imposed in a court under law and it is penalty more than enough. Some people believe it is not enough and those in prison can be subjected to further “punishments” and indignities. This is a relic of times even worse than our own when taking away all those freedoms was not enough for a society which wanted vengeance as well. Being put under someone else’s control and constant supervision was not considered enough by important people who believed prisoners probably did not have the right of free association, liberty of choice and dignity in the first place.

In spite of a lot of prison reform - often started single handedly by people with a social conscience and political prisoners with the motivation and outside support to force reform - conditions in prisons here and in other parts of the world often range from atrocious through bad to unnecessarily oppressive, often without any real means of restoring or creating recognition of people’s dignity inside or outside prison walls.

The treatment of prisoners in Ireland has been a political weapon in which authorities and their agents were given opportunities for private spleen. That this happened so often and so violently in past and recent history is something for which the conscience of prison visitors, chaplains, governors and others should answer. Nowadays we are hearing that the seeds of most serious trouble are there again. The political or other reasons for a man or woman being in prison are irrelevant when it becomes a matter of human dignity while they are there. All prisoners must be treated with dignity and right, and every political party, church, institution, every person has a duty to see to it. What we can do about it we have to decide for ourselves and that depends as much on the condition of our bones and physique as on anything else. Often the spirit is willing to do something and the flesh is not up to white line pickets and demonstrations and much of what was done in the past. But everyone can do something, even writing letters to those with responsibility to ensure that in no circumstances will anyone be allowed without protest to exploit the weakness of men and women whom the law courts have rendered worse than helpless already.

Years ago the situation in prisons was allowed to fester until it became disastrous. It is the responsibility of the Minister for Justice, prison authorities, political administration, to ensure it does not happen again. Prison reform which was painfully won by people, most of whom in normal society would not have been in prison at all, must not have to be struggled for again because of the unwillingness of those in authority to recognise reality inside prisons, or out of them.

Fortunately, these days there is public alarm and indignation about conditions and events in Maghaberry. People in prison have rights, their visitors have rights. In normal societies prisons are run not on behalf of prison staff, or of ministers, or of interest groups, but on behalf of the community as a whole. It is in everyone’s interest that they are managed in accordance with the rights and dignity of those in them, but also of us who pay for them. And it is for us to decide what is right and wrong for them and make insistent demands accordingly.

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