The Red Cross has said it is willing to help resolve the deepening crisis at Maghaberry prison after more than 20 republican prisoners began refusing meals for more than a week.
The protest was launched last week after prison authorities closed a food hatch on the prison’s Roe Four landing, which had been used both for ventilation as well as for receiving food. The hatch had previously been opened throughout the day without any problems.
The prisoners said the move was a further incremental attempt to restrict and confine them, and suggested MI5 may be behind it.
“A deliberate escalating of tension, accompanied by even more security cameras in a small space already saturated with CCTV and recording devices, along with further restrictions on movement are clear signs of those with a malign intent taking control of this jail,” the prisoners said.
“Punitive and vindictive measures to heighten tensions and scupper any attempts at progress seem to be the order of the day.”
The prisoners on Roe 4 wing are refusing both the jail lunchtime and evening meals “until such time as the jail allows us to use our eating and kitchen facility in a humane and dignified manner.”
It is understood several prisoners with complex medical conditions have taken part in the protest, including Belfast man Terry McConnell who underwent brain surgery earlier this month.
A lawyer representing Mr McConnell has threatened legal action in a bid to force authorities to ensure he receives adequate medical attention.
On Thursday, one prisoner Dee Harkin, who suffers from diabetes, collapsed and then fell unconscious while awaiting medical treatment.
A County Tyrone prisoner has launched a separate protest after he was placed in solitary confinement in the jail’s punishment block in recent weeks. Mark Loughrey has undertaken a republican ‘dirty protest’, which includes smearing excrement on his cell wall, to demand a transfer to a republican landing.
Amid evidence of increasing chaos at the County Antrim jail, the International Committee of the Red Cross has agreed to chair a prison forum in a bid to ease tensions.
The Red Cross took on the role after being asked by Stormon justice minister David Ford and receiving the backing of republican prisoners. The forum will be chaired by Geoff Loane, who is the ICRC Head of Office in Belfast. He said the forum is “addressing substantive issues on the basis of an agreed agenda.”
In the past Mr Loane has overseen Red Cross visits to Guantanamo Bay and he has also worked in other conflict zones around the world. The Red Cross has been active in the north since the 1950s but ended prison visits until 1999, a year after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. It set up a full time office in Belfast in 2011.