Former republican prisoner Alex McCrory speaks out on the current situation for prisoners at Maghaberry as they face a ban on family contact due to the coronavirus.
I had a restless sleep over the new proposals for visiting arrangements in Magabherry. While I fully expected the administration would seize upon COVID-19 to introduce changes to the visits, I never anticipated they would be so radical in nature. What is being suggested is both unreasonable and unacceptable.
Close contact visits have been a battle ground for as far back as I can remember. After the escape, those responsible for security used any excuse to convince others of the need for more stringent visiting conditions. However, republican prisoners made it abundantly clear that any interference with close contact visits would be met with outright resistance.
Not being able to physically touch/kiss/hug your wife or child for years is a frightening prospect. It simply will not be tolerated. There is very little room for compromise on this issue.
As the politicians are moving quickly to get the economy back up and running by removing most of the restrictions, the prison administration is threatening to move in the opposite direction.
All during the lockdown screws remained in close contact with the prisoners as a necessary evil. Nobody raised a concern. A level of risk was tolerated because of the exceptional circumstances. The same thinking should apply to close contact visits which are so important to the maintenance of family and friendships.
Republican prisoners were the first to act responsibly by suspending visits in order to reduce exposure to COVID-19. They were acutely aware of the risks posed to public health and acted accordingly. A far more sensible approach to reintroducing visits would be seek the cooperation of the prisoners on the wearing of gloves and masks, as well as keeping physical contact to a bare minimum without the need for perspex screens and the threat of enforced isolation.
I can assure anyone reading this that any curtailment of physical contact with family members over a long period of time would create serious mental health issues for prisoners. For my own part, I know I could not countenance a situation where I could not reach out to physically touch an elderly mother, a wife, a child or grandchild.
Therefore, I would call on wiser heads to intervene in this matter so as to avoid the certainty of more conflict within the prison. If I can sit in a packed bar drinking all day, then there is nothing preventing me from having contact with family members on a visit with agreeable measures in place.
I predict the new proposals for changes to jail visits will ultimately lead to another round of protests. Those least keen to go down the rabbit hole on this issue will be republican prisoners as they know only too well where it can lead to.
In my own experience a protest can take on a life of its own lasting well beyond the point of expectation. It can also mutate into something far worse than was intended depending of the seriousness of the issue and other factors. But the prospect of serving a long sentence without being able to have some degree of physical contact with our nearest and dearest is unthinkable.
For decades the administration has attempted to dictate visiting arrangements to the detriment of familial relations. On the other hand, republican prisoners always adopted a determined attitude to any interferences with visiting conditions. There is very little room for compromise.
I certainly am not fooled by the new proposals coming under the cover of COVID-19. During the lockdown screws continued to work on the landings in close proximity to the prisoners with a minimum of protective clothing. This exposed prisoners to the virus as the screws had lives outside the prison.
COVID-19 regulations were, and continue to be, self-contradictory and inconsistent across society. And so, whilst these new proposals prohibit physical contact between prisoner and visitor, both will receive body searches from staff who are exposed to the virus to a far greater degree.
None of it makes any sense except as a wrecker’s charter. It will almost definitely have the effect of one.