Prison authorities at Maghaberry prison have confirmed that a lockdown is being imposed on the republican wings amid a mounting crisis at the jail.
Prison officials said the measure could be extended if the prisoners do not submit to demands for an earlier evening lock-up time.
Supporters of the prisoners have warned of “a slow-motion train crash” taking place at Maghaberry that could have consequences outside the jail.
The prisoners’ protest is about a number of issues -- strip searches, lock-up times and freedom of movement inside Roe House, where more than thirty republican prisoners are being held.
Some of those prisoners are now involved in a 1980s-style dirty protest.
There have been “hand-to-hand fights” in recent days after an attempt by the prisoners to peacefully resist the new regime was greeted with a brutal response by prison warders.
The actions by the prison authorities have effectively torn up an agreement forged with prisoners last August. Facilitators who brokered the agreement have recently been refused access to the prison.
The current governor was quoted in the press some weeks ago as having stated that as he was not involved in drafting any agreement he does not have to abide by it
The prisoners are continuing to seek political status which includes freedom of movement within the wing in Roe House, and an end to strip searches and early lock-up times.
Supporters have said that what it happening is an attempt to use the prison “as a breaker’s yard”.
“These men in Roe House are Republican political prisoners; in jail because of their political beliefs and not for criminal activity as some of the media would have people believe,” said Josephine Hayden of Republican Sinn Fein’s PoW Department.
On Saturday morning, prisoner Harry Fitzsimons received a severe beating by the prison’s in-house riot squad.
His sister Lilian said the warders “held their hands over his mouth and nose to stop his breathing.”
While punching his face, they broke his glasses, leaving him with cuts on his face. “They tried to break his nose. “One PoW said he’s unrecognisable,” she said.
Following the severe beating which left Mr Fitzsimons with a suspected broken wrist and ribs, “they brutally ripped every stitch of clothing off his body” before he was placed on lockdown.
Fitzsimons is serving an eight-year sentence for his part in an attack by a group of Provisional IRA members on dissident republican Bobby Tohill. (Another one of those convicted of involvement, Liam Rainey, was extradited from the 26 Counties at the weekend and will be held in Maghaberry prison until he is formally sentenced.)
A series of security alerts which caused widespread traffic chaos across Belfast on Friday have been linked to the prison protests. A car that had been left under a motorway bridge led to the closure of the M2, the M3 and the northbound carriageway of Belfast’s key Westlink, as well as a number of nearby roads.
A railway crossing at Dunmurry in south Belfast was also closed due to a bomb warning, while the CastleCourt shopping centre was also closed temporarily. In north Belfast, there were alerts in the Glengormley area, close to the Sandyknowes roundabout, and in nearby Newtownabbey.
In a separate alert, a suspicious device found at Finaghy Road North in south Belfast near the railway line was also declared a hoax, while Stockmans Way off Stockmans Lane in the south of the city was also closed.
In Derry, a security alert in the city centre caused traffic disruption. The Strand Road was closed for around four hours after a ‘suspicious device’ was found.