Tensions are deepening at Maghaberry as riot squads take the place of regular warders. A look at the current situation and the history of the current prisoners’ protest, by Grainne Brinkley (for the Andersonstown News).
The ongoing protest by republican prisoners in Maghaberry will be stepped up if Justice Minister David Ford does not implement the full terms of the August 2010 Roe House agreement.
Representatives of the support group Family and Friends of Republican Prisoners in Maghaberry were speaking to the Andersonstown News as inmates in the prison’s republican Roe House wing continue their no-wash protest at the continued use of full body strip-searching by prison authorities. The Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) claim the use of full body strip-searching is “essential” for security reasons, an argument dismissed by the prisoners and their supporters, who say the inflammatory practice never guaranteed prison security in the past.
It has also been alleged that some long-serving prison officers are using full body strip-searching as “an opportunity to even old scores” against republicans.
The August 2010 Roe House agreement, which was struck between the republican prisoners and prison authorities with the help of independent facilitators, did away with full body strip-searching in the prison in favour of the non-invasive BOSS chair scanner and other technology-based procedures. The agreement also allowed for a gradual reduction in controlled movement for republicans within Roe House.
However, that agreement was to break down only a month later after prison authorities claimed it did not cover strip-searching in the reception area of Maghaberry Prison as prisoners were leaving and entering the facility.
The ensuing stand-off with the prison authorities over the issue, say supporters and relatives, has led to nearly 200 forced strip-searches on republicans inmates and the beating of prisoners who refuse to submit to strip-searching. It also saw the start of the latest no-wash protest, in May 2011.
Tensions have escalated to such an extent that the prison’s riot squad now permanently mans part of the wing in place of regular prison officers.
Brendy Conway of Family and Friends of Republican Prisoners in Maghaberry, himself a prisoner in Maghaberry at the time of the Roe House agreement and who helped negotiate that agreement on behalf of the prisoners, said the problem has become so bad that prisoners are “looking into the abyss”.
“Nothing has given rise to any hope at this stage that this can be resolved,” said Brendy. “The prisoners believed that they had been given cast-iron guaranteed commitments by the [prison] administration to do away with the strip-searching completely and to relax controlled movement within a given time-frame. It was also the understanding of the facilitators that that was the case. However, the Prison Service have now made it quite clear to the facilitators that the August 12 agreement did not cover strip-searching in the reception area. Had we known that we would never have signed the agreement.
“Since May 5, the protest has increased. We have a situation now where we have prisoners on various forms of protest - some are on dirty protest and some guys are not, due to health reasons and age. We are looking into the abyss.”
Former blanketman Alex McCrory, also of Family and Friends of Republican Prisoners in Maghaberry, said that elements within the prison and the NIPS “began to work against the agreement” immediately after it was agreed upon by the relevant parties.
“Strip-searching was re-introduced after the agreement within a very short time and progress on controlled movement was stalled to a snail’s pace,” said Alex. “The prisoners would refuse to comply with the strip-searching as they said it was in breach of the agreement and this then led to forcible strip-searching. Since August 2010 there have been almost 200 forced strip-searches in the prison, leading to countless injuries to prisoners. These searches are very aggressive, involving four to six screws dressed in riot gear wielding shields and batons. Prisoners are beaten to the ground. They have restraining locks applied to their joints and their clothes are forcibly removed. On at least two occasions clothes have been cut off from their bodies using scissors. Several prisoners have received injuries as a result of that. In relation to controlled movement, in Maghaberry today there is a ratio of three screws to one prisoner and five screws to two prisoners. In Long Kesh you had a ratio of two screws to thirty-plus men on a wing with unrestricted movement. The history of republican wings tells us that prison staff are safe when points of conflict are removed. That is the situation that we find ourselves in at present.”
Alex said the facilitators who helped broker the initial Roe House agreement have told the Friends and Family group that a “a blockage in the system at a very senior level” is preventing the full implementation of the terms agreed in August 2010. He added that long-serving prison guards were the main instigators of the “hassle” the prisoners were getting.
“They [the independent facilitators] said that there are people within the system that are totally opposed to the ending of full body strip-searching for the purposes of security even though there is new technology available that makes a full body strip-search obsolete and unnecessary.
“Certain protestors are singled out, such as Colin Duffy [Lurgan] and Harry Fitzsimons [Ballymurphy], men who have a history going back to Long Kesh. There is a sense that some prison guards are getting their own back now for what happened in the past. They have this old mindset and unfortunately Maghaberry affords them the opportunity to even old scores.”
The current no-wash protest involves some 35 prisoners aligned to different republican groups who are refusing to wash, shave or have their hair cut.
“For example, on the top landing you have ONH [Oglaigh na hEireann]-aligned and RSF [Republican Sinn Fein]-aligned prisoners who are putting their human waste on the walls,” explained Alex. “On the bottom landing, prisoners aligned to the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and independent prisoners are putting their human waste on to the landing.
Although there are differences in tactics, there is a full protest at present.”
Alex added that current conditions for prisoners in Roe House are “extremely harsh” and the atmosphere within the wing is “extremely hostile and tense”.
“The bottom landing, which holds 14 of the protestors, is being run by the prison riot squad in full riot gear so the ordinary screws have effectively been withdrawn,” he said. “The prisoners are searched leaving the cell, outside the cell and on returning to the cell. The screws in the riot squad are trained to be aggressive and in-your-face so there has been an awful lot of hostility and tension which the prisoners live with on a daily basis. There is always potential for a flare-up because of the tense relationship between the prisoners and the riot squad. A few of the prisoners have been in jail before and a sizeable number have been in the Kesh, but for the vast majority of them this is their first time in jail. There are no former blanketmen there, so this would be their first experience of these types of conditions and they find it very, very difficult to cope with, but they are very determined to see the agreement implemented in full.”
NIPS claims that the use of full body strip-searches is essential for security reasons have been rubbished by the Friends and Family group.
“As ex-prisoners, we can tell you that that’s complete nonsense,” said Alex. “A full body strip-search never guaranteed prison security. On the blanket protest we were able to bring in thousands of comms, tobacco, radios and God knows what else despite a full body strip-search and mirror search. The full body strip-search is about control and domination, it’s as simple as that. It’s the first contact that the prisoner has with the system and in the first contact you have with that system you are compelled to remove your clothing and stand naked before three or four grown men. The ironic thing is that the technology that we are proposing probably enhances security rather than compromises security.” The support group backs the implementation of the recommendations of the recent independent review into the Northern Ireland Prison Service by Dame Anne Owers, in which she found the Prison Service here to be “dysfunctional” and “ineffective”.
“She recommends that the Prison service as a whole gets other forms of search procedures in place other than full body strip-searching,” said Alex.
“She says there are new technologies that would render the full body strip-search absolutely unnecessary and describes the practice as ‘an invasion of privacy and intrusive’. That report was released two months ago but [Justice Minister] David Ford is saying that it could take two years to implement her recommendations.”
The two men say that prisoners feel that they are not getting “the type of support they deserve from former friends and comrades who should know better and who have been through this whole experience before”.
“Sinn Fein have met with the prisoners on several occasions and met with our group on several occasions and we have discussed the issues inside-out,” said Alex.
“They have made numerous public statements calling on David Ford to implement the agreement, but unfortunately that is not enough. We believe there has to be some sort of meaningful political action following on from these statements. The DUP are the main obstacle to the implementation of this agreement so there has to be a counter to that. The Family and Friends group are calling on Sinn Fein to use their political strength in a positive way to counter the DUP on this issue and to bring a speedy resolution to this problem.”
Alex accepts that the lack of outside interest in the protest could be because it involves prisoners from micro-republican groups.
“To a large extent that is the case, but I also think that people don’t like the idea of the past coming back to haunt them,” he said.
“The situation is bad at the moment and it is difficult to see how the protest can be escalated without something drastic coming into play. Obviously that’s not something that’s being talked about by prisoners or the organisations they align to, but we are talking about a situation here where prisoners are living in their own waste. Now I spent two and a half years on the blanket protest and it cannot get any worse than that. They are under enormous pressure in terms of the physical conditions in which they find themselves and because of that, that puts enormous pressure on the men’s families.”
Brendy Conway added that the prisoners “are not looking anything that was not already agreed as far back as August 2010”.
“Going into 2012 we have prisoners still on dirty protest and locked down 23 hours a day and people going through lengthy trials who are being forcibly stripped twice a day, such as Colin Duffy,” said Brendy.
“The ball’s in their court. To quote the facilitators, an hour could sort this out.”
A spokesperson for the NIPS said the service has “consistently maintained that full body searching on entering and exiting any prison is essential to preserve the security of the establishment and the safety of other prisoners, staff and the wider community in line with practice in other jurisdictions throughout Europe”. The spokesperson continued:”A search facility for separated prisoners at Maghaberry, incorporating a BOSS chair, has been operational since November 17, 2010. In line with the August 2010 agreement, there is no longer any requirement for routine rub-down searching within the separated wings, except where a prisoner is being moved out of the wing. However, the BOSS chair cannot detect non-metallic items. NIPS believes that the existing arrangements are consistent with the August agreement and remains committed to the implementation of the agreement. This position was upheld by the courts when it was challenged by judicial review earlier this year.
“In line with Dame Anne Owers’ recommendation that we should seek an alternative to ‘full body searching’ in her review of NIPS, we are currently researching what, if any, other alternative technologies are available. To date, no viable alternative has been identified.”
Asked about the deployment of the prison riot squad at sections of Roe House in place of regular prison guards, the NIPS spokesperson added: “Members of the NIPS Dedicated Search Team are currently deployed to Roe House at Maghaberry prison for operational reasons, but this arrangement is kept under review by the Governor.
“There is a complaints procedure in place, in particular the Prisoner Ombudsman, should any prisoner believe that NIPS staff have behaved inappropriately.”
SISTER SPEAKS OF BROTHER’S BEATING
The family of a West Belfast man currently on the no-wash protest in Maghaberry prison have vowed to stand by him 100 per cent “no matter what decisions he makes” as fears of a protest escalation mount.
Lilian Fitzsimons, sister of 43-year-old Harry Fitzsimons from Ballymurphy, was speaking to the Andersonstown News as her brother continues on the no-wash protest in the Roe House wing of the County Antrim prison.
Harry’s family say the father-of-four has been severely beaten on two occasions by guards at the prison, with the last attack in May 2011 leaving him with a suspected cracked rib and extensive cuts and bruising to his face and body. Speaking about the most recent beating, Lilian said her brother was given a 15-minute ultimatum to agree to a strip-search before it was brutally forced upon him in his prison cell.
“When they [the prison guards] came in they got him on the ground,” she said.
“While they were beating him and trailing his clothes off him, one of them was ramming a knuckle into a pressure point below his ear constantly. There were six of them that came in and it lasted about 15 to 20 minutes.”
Lilian said when she heard about the attack and tried to contact the prison, she was told nothing of the injuries that her brother had suffered.
“When I asked about him and said I heard that he was beaten I was told ‘No, no, no. We don’t beat our prisoners. Don’t be silly, we don’t beat our prisoners’,” she said.
“I had a visit the next day with him and when I went up I saw the physical injuries on him and I could see the cuts where they had kicked his glasses into his face when he was lying on the ground.
“You could actually see the other visitors and prisoners that were in the visiting room that day taken aback when they saw Harry. It was awful and it was sad, particularly knowing that you couldn’t do anything about it. Even for me to hug him was hurting him.”
Lilian said a priest at the prison spoke to her about Harry’s injuries.
“He said to me, ‘He’s alive but he didn’t get that bumping into a door.’”
The family say it was six days before a doctor examined Harry’s injuries.
“The prison was saying he was refusing to see a doctor. He wasn’t as he was in absolute agony,” said Lilian.
“Harry wears prescription glasses so he wasn’t able to see properly and he also gets terrible headaches when he has no glasses. The reason they gave for the savage beating is that when Harry was throwing his waste out on to the landing after the cell doors were opened some of it got on the prison guards’ shoes and that’s why they entered his cell.”
Lilian said that after the first beating her brother received in April 2010, he was put in the special supervision unit for 14 days.
“They didn’t even let his solicitor in,” she said. “We didn’t know if he was alive or dead or what physical state he was in as they gave him a real physical beating that time too. Families are given such little information and to us it seems these people think it’s their God-given right to beat any republican in the jail. It’s the same administration and regime that’s running the jail as it was pre-hunger strike and I get the impression that they can do what they want. This leaves the family so distressed, it hurts you and it makes you so angry and that’s why people are protesting on the outside as they know it just isn’t right.
“This isn’t normal, if this happened anywhere else in the world there would be such an uproar about it. In this day and age they should not be allowed to get away with stuff like that.”
Lilian added that despite the gruelling conditions her brother has to endure, “he is still very strong in body and mind”.
“No matter what, he stands up for what he believes in and a lot of people will stand by him,” she said.
“Nothing would get him down and this isn’t something that would break him, if anything it would make him determined to carry on.
“As a family we will stand by him 100 per cent no matter what decisions he makes, we will be there for him and we will stand by him.”
THE BAD FAITH AND BROKEN PROMISES
1998: Good Friday Agreement is implemented. Political prisoners are released early on the condition that the groups they are affiliated with are on ceasefire and continue to remain on ceasefire
September 2000: The H-Blocks are closed down. Any republicans arrested after the closure of the H-Blocks are now integrated with ‘ordinary decent criminals’ (ODCs) in Maghaberry prison.
“They were mixed in with loyalists and the likes of paedophiles and so on,” said Brendy Conway, former Maghaberry prisoner and member of the Friends and Family of Republican Prisoners in Maghaberry.
“As the number of republican prisoners increased in Maghaberry over the years they spread them out throughout the prison.”
2002: Republican prisoners in Maghaberry begin forms of no-wash protest. Republican prisoners demand a separate wing in the prison from loyalist prisoners, after several clashes, and from ODCs.
September 2003: Publication of the Steele Report. Following escalations in the no-wash protests at Maghaberry, the British government commissions a review of conditions at the prison conducted by a team headed up by Sir John Steele, a former Director of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. The report recommends “separation by paramilitary affiliation” of prisoners to help provide a safer environment. The report recommendations are adopted. Two new wings are now to be built at Maghaberry Prison - Roe House for republican prisoners and Bush House for loyalists.
“On the basis of the Steele Report’s findings, and as part of the agreement then reached between the prisoners and the prison authorities, the prisoners agreed to come off protest until this new wing was built,” said Brendy.
“It was also agreed that the authorities would recognise prisoner structures - i.e. the prisoners would have representatives to deal with the authorities on education, for instance, or the day-to-day running of the landing.”
March 2004: Roe House is opened and republican prisoners move in. However, in a position statement shown to the Andersonstown News, republican prisoners claim the previous agreement with the authorities was instantly reneged upon when the wing was opened and a “criminalisation regime put in place which was again designed to control, degrade and criminalise republican prisoners”. This is alleged to have included: prisoners searched up to six times a day when moving between cells and recreation area; daily cell searches; “degrading” full body strip-searches; prisoners locked up for up to 22 hours a day; three guards to every prisoner when they left their cells.
2004 to 2008: Prisoners begin protesting again, this time in reaction to deteriorating conditions at Roe House. “There were different token protests by the prisoners to get the authorities to change the ratio of guards to prisoners,” said Brendy.
“This approach worked to some extent - they increased the number of prison officers to five officers for two prisoners but then the maximum number of prisoners allowed out was changed from three to eight.”
2008 to 2009: Talks and debates begin between the republican prisoners to decide how best to move the protest forward and improve the conditions for republican prisoners. “We identified the main areas that we wanted dealt with before we would come off protest,” said Brendy, who was then a prisoner in Roe House.
“These areas were: the controlled movement of prisoners; the full body strip-searching of prisoners; recognition by the Prison Service that republican prisoners were not ordinary prisoners and therefore should be treated differently. Strip-searching and controlled movement were the two main areas that we wanted movement on. I was involved in those negotiations and we came to an agreement on how we were going to do it. The first stage of that took place in April 2010.”
April 4, 2010: The prisoners barricade themselves into the canteen area of Roe House for 36 hours. “We were then forcibly removed from the canteen and returned to our cells,” said Brendy.
“After that the protest inevitably increased through April, May and into June. There were 28 prisoners on the two landings in Roe House and all of them were on full protest, which was throwing our waste on to the landing.
“On one occasion West Belfast man Harry Fitzsimons had a disagreement with an SO [senior officer]. He went out for an hour’s exercise, came back and after lunch a riot squad was sent into his cell and severely beat him. They pulled him off the wing and put him in the SSU (special supervision unit), handcuffed him to a bed, cut his clothes off and strip-searched him. That evening when they took him off the wing all the prisoners wrecked their cells, which signalled the start of the protest escalating.”
The new no-wash protest saw prisoners putting their waste out of their cell doors and windows and refusing to wash.
June 2010: Facilitation between prisoners and the Northern Ireland Prison Service begins. As the stalemate between the prisoners and the prison authorities deepens, the group Family and Friends of Republican Prisoners in Maghaberry is formed outside the prison to raise awareness of the prisoners’ plight. By the end of June a facilitation group made up of Derry community worker Conal McFeely, Peter Bunting from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Dr Ram Manikkalingam from the Dialogue Advisory Group enters the prison to help mediate a deal between the prisoners, the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Maghaberry prison administration.
“The prisoners debated this [the involvement of the facilitation group] and agreed to it, under certain conditions - that we would speak to them frankly and at all times be in control of what we were doing,” said Brendy.
“A 10-man negotiating team was then set up by the prisoners to speak for them, who then elected two people to speak on their behalf, who were myself and Colin Duffy.”
The prisoners’ two main demands are: an end to strip searching and for more humane and less intrusive methods to be used instead; the end to controlled movement.
“We met facilitators and then met directly with prison governors,” said Brendy.
“The governors said they were willing to look at our demands, but only if the prisoners came off protest, which we refused.”
August 6, 2010: A “final proposal” is offered by the prison that does not address the prisoners’ two main demands. “The facilitators told us there was nothing more that could be done,” said Brendy. “So the prisoners decide to increase the protest in jail, which led to a cessation of visits and an increase in tension in the prison.”
August 11: Facilitators re-enter the prison with a new agreement ending full body strip-searching. “It was supposed to remove the practice entirely from within Maghaberry, except in two circumstances,” said Brendy.
“One was if intelligence-led information suggested that a prisoner was smuggling stuff in and this information could be stood over by a credible third party (video footage etc). Secondly, if the technology we agreed could be used in the new search indicated that there was something there, a full strip-search could be carried out. So we gave them room that they still had an opportunity to carry out strip-searching in certain circumstances.”
The technology the prisoners agreed could be used in place of full body strip-searches includes a BOSS scanner, effectively a metal-detector chair.
“We agreed that if we were leaving the prison to go on visits or go to court we would remove our footwear, belts and outer coats and put them through an airport-type scanner,” said Brendy.
“We would then be given rubdown searches, scanned over with a metal-detector and seated in the Boss chair. We agreed on that and accepted it.
“In terms of controlled movement, we agreed that, on the signing of the agreement and on the end of our protest, the authorities would immediately increase the number of prisoners allowed out at one time. The number of prisoners allowed out on the landing at one time was increased from three to six straight away. It was also agreed by December 2010 that the number of prisoners allowed out would increase again, and by early 2011 we would all have freedom of movement within Roe House and the two landings from 8am in the morning to 8pm at night.
“The prison staff were always concerned that it would go back to a Maze-type scenario where there would only be a small amount of guards on the wing at any time. But we never negotiated for the removal of prison officers from the landing, if there had to be 50 of them we didn’t care as long as it didn’t impede our freedom of movement, i.e. that as prisoners our doors should be opened in the morning and we could move freely about our landings, canteen and yard.”
August 12, 2010: The Roe House agreement is signed. “Within the first few days there were teething problems on controlled movement - which we allowed for - for instance they were not allowing six out at a time as the place was upside down with tradesmen in working etc,” said Brendy.
“But right to this day they have never let six prisoners out as the guards were refusing to let that number out without 15 to 16 staff on the landing.”
September 23, 2010: First forcible full body strip-search since Roe House agreement is carried out on Brendy Conway as he is leaving for court appearance. “I was told to strip but I flatly refused as it was not part of the Roe House agreement,” said Brendy.
“I was told by guards it was part of the agreement as reception was not covered in the agreement. A big argument then started between prison governors and myself and during this I was forcibly removed from the reception area, brought to the punishment unit of the prison where I was pinned to the floor and forcibly strip-searched.”
Prisoners opt not to go back on protest but to inform facilitators of the agreement breach against Brendy Conway. The recently inactive group Family and Friends of Republican Prisoners in Maghaberry is reformed on the outside.
November 17, 2010: New search facility opens adjacent to Roe House. This new search facility contains the aforementioned Boss chair and scanners. Prisoners are now searched leaving and entering Roe House to visit other parts of the prison as well as being strip-searched in the main reception area of Maghaberry when they are leaving and entering the prison site.
On the first day the new search facility at Roe House is used a mouth search is introduced on prisoners which they refuse to cooperate with. This sparks a stand-off between prison staff and prisoners in the run-up to Christmas which leads to the cessation of prison visits. Facilitators are brought in again and it is agreed that conversing between prisoner and guard would be seen as acceptable in place of a mouth search. Visits begin again in the week leading up to Christmas.
Early 2011: Prisoners continue meeting with facilitators and political parties visiting the prison while the Family and Friends group continue their campaign on the outside.
May 5, 2011: Prisoners begin protest again. The Prison Service makes it clear to facilitators that the agreement did not cover strip-searching in reception area.
“The prisoners deemed the agreement as effectively over as authorities were no longer adhering to it,” said Brendy. “Prisoners then wrecked their cells and began a no-wash protest again. What needs to be made absolutely clear is that as far as the facilitators were concerned their interpretation of the Roe House agreement of August 12, particularly in regards to full body strip-searching, was always in line with the prisoners’ interpretation.”
October 2011: An independent review into the Northern Ireland Prison Service is published. The independent review, commissioned by the Minister for Justice David Ford and headed up by Dame Anne Owers, finds the Prison Service here “dysfunctional” and “ineffective”. One of its key recommendations is the need to do away with full body strip-searching in favour of using other technologies.
The no-wash protest continues.