Republican prisoners in Portlaoise Prison in the Irish midlands are preparing to sue over the degrading and inhumane conditions at the maximum security jail.
The case is believed to be the first of its kind in the 26 County state and follows months of unrest between the prisoners and prison management.
Conditions in the E2 landing where political prisoners are held have deteriorated to such an extent that the men’s human rights are being breached. TD Clare Daly, who recently visited the jail, described conditions at Portlaoise as “Victorian and unacceptable” and “beyond belief”.
The prisoners have been complaining for years about conditions, but the dispute has escalated because a number of them have suffered a sharp decline in health. Five of those on the landing have been diagnosed with different forms of cancer.
Photographs of the landing and washroom show the building is disintegrating. Some cells have been vacated and taken out of use because of extreme damp, mould and decay, and raw sewage runs down pipes separating landings in the block.
Asbestos particles are being released because of the crumbling walls, and the quality of the food provided has deteriorated and portions reduced to such an extent that they need to source their own food.
Washroom facilities are described as “horrendous”, and there is sub-standard healthcare and only infrequent access to a doctor.
Pigeons are now nesting in the building, and the prison service has refused requests to have the water tested or allow the HSE or Food Safety Authority inspect the jail.
Meanwhile, the prisoners are still forced to defecate and urinate into buckets in their cells overnight and ‘slop out’ in the mornings. Slopping out in their section of Portlaoise is continuing at a time when sanitation has been installed in other prisons, including Mountjoy.
The dispute between prisoners on the landing and prison management has deteriorated sharply since the summer, with the prisoners ending the normal practice of keeping their own part of the prison clean. They have also blocked prison staff from entering the landing to clean it.
That stand-off had resulted in bags of refuse, including food waste, piling up from the beginning of summer until September.
At that point staff began entering the landing at regular intervals at night to clean when prisoners were locked in their cells, before it was agreed to bring an end to the refuse protest on the basis that the officials would present a plan in the new year to address the prisoners’ concerns.
However, the prisoners have refused the prison service’s request to set aside their legal action against the State. They have already refused a move to Castlerea Prison in Roscommon, because they believe such a transfer could compromise their hard-won categorisation as political prisoners.
In a recent statement, those prisoners aligned to support group Cogus expressed their appreciation to the four elected TDs -- Maureen O’Sullivan, Clare Daly, Mick Wallace and Thomas Pringle -- who visited the jail to see the conditions.
“There is still a long road ahead in bringing about equality and ending the inhumane and degrading practices that exist in Portlaoise Gaol,” they said. “However, we believe we have taken the first step on that road.”