Details have emerged this week about the brutal strip-searching of a female republican prisoner at Hydebank Wood Prison.
Sharon Rafferty, of Pomeroy in County Tyrone, was ordered to remove her clothes before and after making a court appearance last month.
When the mother-of-three refused, female prison staff assaulted her and forcibly removed her clothes.
Ms Rafferty has been held for sixteen months at Hydebank Wood women’s prison on the outskirts of Belfast.
It has also emerged that a second republican prisoner, Christine Connor, missed a hospital appointment last month after refusing to be strip searched.
Both women have said they will not voluntarily submit to strip searches in future.
Mandy Duffy from the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association said Ms Rafferty felt like she had been “sexually assaulted” after the search.
“She feels very strongly she should not have to remove any clothing,” she said.
Describing the procedure as “degrading and humiliating”, Ms Duffy said the Pomeroy woman had not reported any physical injuries, but had been left “distressed” by the ordeal.
The incidents recall the British treatment of Roisin McAliskey, daughter of former Mid Ulster MP Bernadette McAliskey, who was searched more than 70 times while pregnant in custody awaiting extradition to Germany in connection.
She was ultimately released without charge in 1998. In 2005, a High Court judgement found that the existing policy of strip searches “cannot be demonstrated to be proportionate and necessary”.
Despite this, the practice has continued. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) said it intends to raise the issue with the Prison Service later this month.
Mandy Duffy said both male and female republican prisoners refuse to submit to strip searching, pointing out that scanners exist that make the practice unnecessary. She said three male republicans being held at Maghaberry Prison were also forcibly strip searched last month.
Previously, violent strip searching resulted in male prisoners at Maghaberry Prison staging a dirty protest over 18 months, which came to an end last year with the trial of two body scanners at Hydebank. However in February, the British government said the scanners would not replace full body searches.
Republican prisoners at both Hydebank and Maghaberry are currently held in separate wings from the main prison population.
The separation resulted in Ms Rafferty, as the only republican prisoner in Hydebank, spending more than one year in effective isolation, until she was joined in June this year by Christine Connor.
Ms Connor was denied a hospital appointment on August 23 after she refused to comply with a strip search on departure from the prison.
“With the policy now that they are going to be asking republican prisoners to comply with strip searches, that they will refuse, this is going to have an impact on hospital appointments and doctors appointments,” she claimed.
“Christine does have medical concerns. She has kidney problems and she does need to attend her appointments. Therefore she is being denied her rights to medical attention.”
ECHOES OF ARMAGH
The introduction of strip searching at the all female Armagh jail in November 1982 became one of the most controversial features of the troubles, sparking widespread protests.
During the first full year of the policy, 1,218 searches were carried out on 358 women. Armagh jail closed in 1986 with all female prisoners transferred to Maghaberry, where the practice continued.
In 1985 Bishop of Derry Edward Daly described the practice as “revolting and fruitless”. Three years later Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich called for an end to the “humiliating and degrading” practice at Armagh jail.