Tension at Maghaberry as jailers maintain Covid lockdown

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With Covid restrictions being removed and a sense of normality returning, republican prisoners at Maghaberry jail have called for prison visits to be reinstated to the same format as they were.

The Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association (IRPWA) said that when Covid took hold, republican prisoners had shown courage and leadership by putting their visits off to limit the spread of infection.

“Within days the jail administration followed suit and suspended visits for the entire prison. Our prisoners were a step ahead with the common sense approach,” they said.

“Two years on and Republican Prisoners haven’t had a visit, they haven’t held their children or loved ones.”

The prison administration, believed to be guided by MI5, is still enforcing what amounts to a closed visit, with a perspex screen dividing the prisoner from their family, and with a warder present to monitor and restrict the visit to one child at a time.

The slightest breach of these ‘rules’ will see the visit terminated and the prisoner placed in isolation for 14 days, the IRPWA said:

“Republican Prisoners have been more than patient, they have shown dignity and have remained disciplined. Everyday life on the outside is returning to normal, yet the occupiers are exploiting the situation in order to punish prisoners of conscience and their families.

“We are on the verge of witnessing another protest within the prison. Political prisoners have asked for dialogue in order to avoid that and to prevent this situation from escalating. Their requests aren’t unreasonable.”

The following is a full statement on the issue from the prisoners involved:

“On 20th March 2020, Republican Prisoners in Maghaberry Gaol collectively took the difficult decision to stop taking family visits as concerns increased regarding the Covid 19 pandemic. The decision was taken with the best interests of our families at heart. In doing so we took the initiative in what was a challenging time for all.

It wasn’t until 23rd March 2020 that NIPS [Northern Ireland Prison Service] took the decision to suspend family visits in what was seen as a short term measure to counteract the spread of Covid throughout the Gaols. At that time Republican Prisoners took no issue with the suspension of in-person family visits as the safety and well-being of our loved ones was at the forefront of our minds, whilst being equally mindful of the averse impact this course of action may have on the families of Republican Prisoners. We believe however that this was the best option at the time.

For the months that followed up until 25th August 2020, our only contact with our families came through the medium of recorded phone calls. During this period, Republican Prisoners requested that our in-person family visits were replaced with zoom calls of the same duration. This was in order to try and maintain a family life. However we instead were granted two twenty minute zoom calls per week.

Our position on this was, and remains, that the duration of these calls is inadequate in providing our “Article 8 – Right to a Family Life” but due to the uncertainty we decided to take them as a means to try and maintain as best as possible our family relations.

Over the course of the pandemic Republican Prisoners have kept a close check on ever changing conditions in society with lockdowns and restrictions coming and going in such a way that we have not been oblivious to the harsh realities and consequences of living in such challenging times.

It’s for that very reason that we have, at all times, put our interests behind that of our loved ones in our approach to the pandemic. Despite the hardship incurred as a result of the loss of the physical contact, we draw inspiration from the way have selflessly struggled on through this difficult period.

Recently we have been watching with intent the lifting of restrictions surrounding social contact and household mixing while the likes of restaurants and bars have been opened to all. Thankfully the world is now turning again as things start to get back to a sense of normality. It is with this in mind we now demand our right to full contact visits with our families again for the first time in almost two years.

The current facilities in place within the visit complex of Maghaberry Gaol don’t allow for this and are in stark contrast to the measures that exist outside, whereby a plastic screen has been installed across visiting booths to prevent any form of physical contact. With that comes a warning that any unauthorised contact shall result in the prisoner being isolated for up to 14 days in the isolation unit. Even the isolation period in Maghaberry outweighs the isolation period outside and at best it would appear this administration is stuck in the past

In circumstances where there are no restrictions in place concerning social distancing and contact outside, it beggars belief that NIPS feels the need to punitively enforce its measures on prisoners. This is unacceptable and will never be accepted by Republican Prisoners. We have been more than patient over the last two years and conducted ourselves in a dignified and disciplined manner befitting of political prisoners.

We demand that the physical barriers in place preventing physical contact being experienced are removed to enable the resumption of full contact family visits. Republican Prisoners are not willing to sit on our hands and allow these punitive restrictions on our families lives, and are prepared to act accordingly if these nonsensical conditions are not removed.

We are prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue to reach resolutions over the coming weeks, but if no such resolutions take place we are left with no other option than to commence protest action.

We would like to take this opportunity to call on the support of those who have always supported us; friends, families and activists alike. This is a human rights issue so the support of all is welcome.

We seek no concessions nor have any unreasonable demands. We simply wish to see and embrace our loved ones again for the first time in almost two years in facilities as they were pre pandemic. Nothing short of this will we accept.

Resume full contact family visits now!

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