An open letter by DD McLaughlin, an Irish republican prisoner on protest against strip-searching and other abuses at Maghberry.
We near the start of our 7th month on protest which started on May 6th 2011. The following is what a PoW has to endure daily and has been doing so for the past few months while on protest.
After a night of so called “body checks” ( and for those of you who don’t know what it is) - It’s a screw going round each cell door, banging it open and shining a torch on the POW inside while he is sleeping. This is designed to minimise sleep during the night. It happens at least 2-4 times between the hours of 10pm and 7am.Then,at 7am, between 20-25 alarm bells go off loudly, each one lasting from 5 seconds up to 2 minutes. Then, between 7.30am and 8.15am your door bursts open and standing glaring at you is one of the riot squad doing another check. Each PoW’s door is opened and closed aggressively. The riot squad trying to intimidate us as soon as they come onto our wing on Roe 4 to start their daily shift. They have been on our wing since May.
I get up, start to do some exercise and walk the 5 paces up and down the cell. Outside on the landing I hear the cleaners with their shovels, brushes and the wet/dry Hoovers making that dull droning noise. They’re cleaning up the mess from last night and they’ll be on the wing all day cleaning all day. The time is 8.30am.I walk up and down the cell waiting for the door to open and get my breakfast. You can wait from 9am to 11am depending on whether the Riot Squad have to forcibly strip one of our comrades before he goes to court. My last meal was at 4pm yesterday and I’m hoping I’ll get some warm water for a nice cup of tea. At last the door opens and four Riot Squad are standing around my door. I am handed a box containing two Weetabix, a half pint of milk, and I get my cup filled with water for tea but it’s lukewarm, again! The Riot Squad are dressed in white disposable boiler suits, helmets, boots and belt with baton etc. these are the same people who forcibly strip us, that hand us our breakfast at the cell door.
The cell door opens again. It’s 10:15am. ‘Phone!’ one of the Riot Squad grunts. I lift my gallon jar which we have to fill daily and use for drinking water and step out onto the landing. One of them searches me while the others stand around me, staring. I am surrounded and marched to the phone where I am locked in. After a few minutes they shout “Time’s up!”, and I step out onto the landing again and searched. Remember now, I am the only prisoner on the landing and I was on my own on the phone, being watched all the time by the Riot Squad and a camera in the phone room. I am surrounded again and marched to the cell. Only one prisoner is allowed onto the landing at a time, surrounded by four Riot Squad.
It’s 11:25am, the cell door opens again. “Shower!” the screw grunts. I step out onto the landing. I am searched again while my towel, boxers, socks and bar of soap (these are the only items we are allowed to bring to the showers) are thoroughly searched. I am again surrounded, marched to the showers and locked in. when finished, I have to wait to get out and I am searched again. These searches consist of arms spread out and searched, from the wrist to the shoulders, then around the neck, ribs and down to the waist, legs and ankles. Most time you are grabbed aggressively and searched. My stuff was searched again. I am surrounded and marched back to the cell and locked in. some days you won’t get a shower or phone call, it depends if the Riot Squad let you out for it or not. POWs with children at school only get to talk to them at the weekend for a few minutes.
Locked in the cell now, waiting for 12 noon lunch. The door flies open, I am handed a box and the door slams quickly shut. A slight exaggeration as I see no beef! I only have a few minutes to eat this and the door opens again for exercise. If you haven’t eaten it, too bad, it will have to do until after exercise. I step onto the landing again, searched aggressively again, pulling at my collar and ripping up my trouser leggings, tearing the hairs off my legs as foes this with his latex gloves. Pure sectarian hatred, just staring me in the eyes. I don’t flinch; I just stare straight through him. I am surrounded again and marched out to the exercise yard. The only thing you are allowed to take to the yard is tobacco if you smoke. We get roughly one and a half hours exercise. It’s great to get some fresh air and exercise. We are locked in a cage - it’s like a large birdcage with the roof and sides double layered with a thick wire mesh. This is the only time during the day that we get to talk to each other. Then when the times up, we are brought one at a time out of the yard, searched again, marched back to the cell and locked up again until tomorrow. Back in the cell, it’s 2:05pm and it is time to start the daily ritual of ‘mixing’ - this is done in a small blue ‘pot’ and you have to stir your urine and excrement until it is in liquid form so it will go out the door easier. The screws have blocked the doors on the outside twice (now with rubber and steel) but where there’s a will, there’s a way. No matter what they do, we always counteract it. So you finish mixing and let it sit brewing. Any rubbish or papers go out the windows. Outside’s a mess, inside’s a mess, cleaners going non-stop all day - cleaning cells, cleaning landings and outside has to be cleaned as well.
It’s 3:20pm and a screw opens the door and says “Duty Governor to see you. Any requests or complaints?” I just stare at them both and he slams the door shut. They get the same from the other 13 lads as well. I do some reading until the dinner comes around. It’s 4:05pm and the door opens - Riot Squad are standing there with a food carton and an apple. I get my cup filled with water, lukewarm again. No words are spoken at the door, and it shuts as quickly as it opens. The food is half cooked sausages, a few spuds, some peas and an oil-like substance - gravy. I balance the carton on my knees and eat while I stare out the window at all the grey mesh and razor-wire. I glance around the cell at the corner where all the rotten bits of food and stuff are lying. No clean knives or forks here, or washing of hands. I haven’t even basic things like a mirror. We are locked in the cells for over 22 hours per day. It’s 4:30 pm and I won’t see anyone else until tomorrow.
It’s 6:40pm now and I look out into the darkness at the high grey razor wire - fences all around me, and I wonder how Marian is getting on? All on her own in isolation, not having anyone to talk to, or go for a walk with. We are lucky here, having each other, when Marian has to go through each day by herself. The only time she sees a friendly face is during her one visit a week - which is only for the guts of an hour. I know she is strong, has been in worse situations before and has beaten it.
As the night creeps in, my mind wanders and I think of my wife, my two wee children and all my family and friends. I know they are 100% behind me just like all the families and friend of all the POWs here on Roe 4. I am in cell 11 where a few months ago, our friend Harry Fitzsimons was brutally beaten and tortured for roughly 20 minutes. We were all locked in our cells during his ordeal. To hear this going on while you are locked behind a door is a terrible feeling. Anger, frustration, and you can’t help or do anything, all the while hoping the person getting the beating will be OK. Then have to sit in a visit and see Harry’s family crying at the shape the Riot Squad had left him...
Then just last week Kevin Murphy came in and wasn’t on our wing one day until he was brought to court and he wasn’t needed at all. Just and excuse to forcibly strip search him. He was pulled by the head up and down the cell by the Riot Squad who forced the clothes off him. That night he said he felt as though he had been in a car crash, his body aching all over. That was his welcome from the screws to Roe 4. At resent between us we have endured over 90 forced strip searches and with trials approaching this will increase rapidly. Colin Duffy’s trial is just over a week away, and with him having to endure 2 strips a day, that’s 10 forced strips per week, and a trial expected to last between 2 - 3 months. Colin could be faced with being forcibly stripped between 80 and 120 times over the duration of his trial. Brendan McConville, John Paul Wootton, Kevin Nolan and Gerard McManus will be facing a similar amount of forced strips as their trials also approach.
With thoughts like these going through your mind, it makes you feel very angry and sad at the suffering POWs have to go through but we are strong, determined and unstoppable in our protest to end strip searching and the criminalisation of Republican prisoners in Maghaberry Gaol. The following men are making a stand; Kevin Nolan, Gerard McManus, Kevin Murphy, Brian Sheridan, Brian Cavlan, Colin Duffy, Harry Fitzsimons, Dominic Dynes, Joe Barr, Sean McConville, John Paul Wootton, Mark McGuigan, Brendan McConville, and myself, DD McLaughlin.
Victory to the POWs.