By Robert Carry (for JOE.ie)
“The toilets were broken so we had to keep our excrement in plastic bags,” recalls Garry Donnelly, a republican from the Creggan area of Derry of his time in detention in a Northern Ireland prison. “But we had no way of getting rid of it. We were forced to liquefy the waste and pour it out through the sides of the cell doors.”
It sounds like an account from inside the H-Blocks during the darkest days of the dirty protest Provisional IRA prisoners engaged in during the height of the Troubles. Except this happened in summer 2010.
According to the Prison Service of Northern Ireland there are currently 30 republican prisoners detained in the high security facility at Maghaberry. Although largely unnoticed by the media in the Republic, the men spent much of 2010 locked into a bitter dispute with the prison authorities.
Prisoners detained on charges relating to paramilitary activity won the right to be segregated from the rest of Maghaberry’s prison population back in 2005 after a lengthy protest led by men linked to the ‘Real’ IRA. However, the tension began to mount earlier this year amid claims of 23-hour lock downs, inhumane treatment and attacks on prisoners.
Among those detained was Gary Donnelly, whose role in the dispute started back in August 2006. He and eight other members of the ‘Derry Anti-War Coalition’ broke into the Raytheon factory in Derry after information emerged that the facility was being used to make missiles for Israeli and US forces. “We thrashed the place and threw their computers out the window,” recalls Donnelly.
The group, tagged the Raytheon Nine, was arrested at the scene. While being taken into court in handcuffs, Donnelly says he turned to wave at supporters when PSNI offers bundled him to the ground. “I was assaulted and carried into the court yet they charged me with the assault of three officers,” he says.
Although later acquitted of charges relating to the Raytheon factory break-in, Donnelly had to appear in court again to face the triple assault charge. He faced a lengthy prison term.
However, a journalist from the Irish News, Seamus McKinney, witnessed the event and came forward. The presiding judge, Judge Bates, said he had been “impressed” by Mr McKinney’s evidence and then threw out the case.
Just hours after winning his court battle on assault charges against members of the PSNI, Donnelly was stopped again. “That night I was in Foyle Street in central Derry with three members of the Raytheon Nine. The PSNI pulled up and one of them told me to get on the footpath so he could search me.
I was pushed face down onto the ground and one came down with his knee - and snapped my arm.
“I said he could search me where I was. He shoved me and as I went back he went to shove me again. I stumbled and two or three others jumped me. I was pushed face down onto the ground and one came down with his knee - and snapped my arm.”
Donnelly says he asked for an ambulance to be called but the officers refused, handcuffing him and taking him to station. “They didn’t deny handcuffing me in the trial. They eventually un-cuffed one of my wrists - but left the cuff on the broken arm,” he recalls.
The republican was released into the custody of his solicitor some time later and was taken to hospital. “My arm was in wrecked. They x-rayed me and found that it was broken in three places - I had a three-piece spiral fracture.”
Worse was yet to come. Donnelly was again charged with assaulting an officer. Presiding over the case was District Judge Barney McElholm. He acknowledged that there were a number of discrepancies in the evidence given by police officers during the trial, adding, “It surprises me somewhat that no-one took seriously enough Mr. Donnelly’s protestations that his arm was broken.” He pointed out that the circumstances surrounding how Donnelly sustained a broken arm were “unresolved and unclear” before finding him guilty of assaulting one of the officers.
“I was given a 400 pounds fine but on a point of principal I appealed it.” Donnelly’s appeal was unsuccessful. He was given a seven month custodial sentence.
Donnelly was sent to the high-security prison at Maghaberry to begin his sentence. He was detained for a week alongside ordinary criminals before being moved to Roe House - the most high-security wing of the prison reserved for republican dissidents. “The cell doors only ever opened when there was a minimum of three prison officers to accompany you,” remembers Donnelly. “It was like something out of The Silence of the Lambs.”
The controlled movement of republican prisoners around the wing meant that for the next three and a half months, Donnelly never passed any other prisoners or entered anyone else’s cell. “You were lucky to get showered and fed, never mind an opportunity to mix with others.”
The situation in the republican wing of the prison was already beginning to escalate at the time. Republicans were refusing to eat in their cells because each one also contained a toilet. “It was like eating in a bathroom, so they refused to do it,” says Donnelly.
The prison authorities eventually ceded to the demand. “They would take us into a small kitchen one at a time,” says Donnelly. “We worked out that prisoners had approximately four minutes to eat their meal if everyone was to get out to eat but the prison officers deliberately slowed the process down so a lot of prisoners didn’t get fed.
“The evening meal came at 4pm so if you missed that you wouldn’t be fed until 8am the next morning. It meant that for sometimes three or four days in a row guys were getting their last meal of the day at 12pm.”
One day a group of prison officers came to Donnelly’s cell and said his life had been placed under threat by one of the dissident republican groups, and they moved him to the isolation wing of the prison - the Special Secure Unit (SSU).
“I was put into a cell next to a guy called Robert Black, an Englishman, who is a convicted child killer,” says Donnelly. “I couldn’t accept being put in with people like that over a fictitious threat to my life. I went on protest and refused to eat.”
After seven days without food, Donnelly was finally moved back to Roe House. A week after his return, the prisoners escalated the dispute. “A group of prisoners took over the canteen after mass and refused to leave,” he recalls.
After a 36 hour stand-off, the protest was broken up by the prison’s riot squad. The ring-leaders were sent to the punishment block while all furniture was stripped from the cells of the remaining republicans. “Roe House became a punishment block,” says Donnelly. “From then on prisoners just refused to co-operate.”
According to Donnelly, the prisoners then heard that one of the republicans taken to the SSU was attacked by the guards. “It was a vicious attack. The riot team beat him in the back of a riot van on his way to the punishment block. They handcuffed him to a bed and ripped his clothes off him,” he says.
“The rest of the republican prisoners erupted when they heard news the allegations. We wrecked the place,” recalls Donnelly. “We wrecked the furniture in our cells, busted the toilets, busted the sinks and basically flooded the two landings.
“Soon afterwards, they stopped letting people out to the toilets. Prisoners had to keep their excrement in a plastic bag because the cell toilets were not working. We were not allowed out to dispose of it so prisoners were forced to liquefy the excrement and pour it out through the sides of the cell doors.”
In response, Donnelly claims the prison officers brought in industrial cleaners, often in the early hours of the morning, and pushed the human waste back under the cells doors. Hot water was turned off in cells and showers and prisoners were refused permission to use hair cutting equipment.
According to Donnelly, they were no longer permitted to leave their cells to eat, and despite the fact that their cells swam with human waste they were forced into a climb-down. “At this stage the prisoners had to eat in their cells or else they were going to starve to death,” he says.
You would almost be doing a circus act, naked from the waist down. We decided we wouldn’t do this anymore.
He was finally released in June 2010. The protest, however, continued on until an agreement, brokered by two members of the trade union movement and an international observer from Sri Lanka, was reached two months later.
Under the terms of the deal, prisoners were no longer required to undergo strip-searches, which Donnelly maintains were deliberately carried out in a way designed to humiliate. “First you take your top half off, then you put it back on,” he says. “Then you take your bottom half off - everything. Next they order you to stand on one foot and show them the soles of your feet, all the time with your hands behind your back holding your top up.
“You would be standing like a chicken doing a balancing act on one leg. They would stand there saying, ‘higher, that’s not high enough’. You would almost be doing a circus act, naked from the waist down. We decided we wouldn’t do this anymore.”
Donnelly and the other prisoners’ refusal to cooperate with strip-searches had been taking a toll on their families. “When my family was coming up to see me they would single me out for a strip search knowing I would refuse,” he recalls. “I would be charged, and that gave them the excuse to deny the visit.
“My family, including my two-year-old son, would come in and would be allowed to get right into the seating area. They would sit down to wait for me but the screws wouldn’t even tell them. Other prisoners would have to go over and say, ‘Look, he’s been singled out for a strip search, he’s not coming.’ That’s hard on a two-year-old boy.”
By the time of his release, Donnelly had amassed 50 charges for non-cooperation, including a count of mutiny over his involvement in the taking over of the canteen. He claims that since his release, he has been the victim of harassment by the PSNI. “I was charged three weeks ago with possession of an article likely to be useful to terrorists,” he reveals. “A phone.”
The former prisoner believes that his family too has been targeted by police, who he says has been using stop and search legislation as a means of harassment. “I’ve been stopped and searched twice this week,” he says.
“My children have been stopped with me on numerous occasions. My two-year-old son has been stopped with me three or four times. I made complaints to the Children’s Commissioner about it but then my home was raided about two months ago and they seized correspondence from the Commissioner to my solicitor under the terms of the Terrorism Act.”
JOE contacted the Prison Service of Northern Ireland for comment on the protest but none was received at the time of publication. Although we have been unable to verify whether stop and search legislation is being used as a means of harassment, PSNI figures suggest that some 17,000 stop and searches were carried out, under the terms of Terrorism Act, in the first half of this year.