Three independent councillors in Derry and Strabane have supported republican prisoners who are campaigning for visiting arrangements introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic to be relaxed.
Gary Donnelly, Paul Gallagher and Sean Carr spoke out amid rising tensions over visiting conditions at Maghaberry and Hydebank prisons.
Earlier this month republican prisoners threatened to launch a protest and called for talks to find a solution to the dispute.
Restrictions were placed on visiting arrangements at the north’s prisons at the start of the pandemic but relaxed last year.
A maximum of three people are currently allowed to attend “closed visits” where prison staff are present and loved ones are separated by a perspex screen.
Prisoners are also only allowed physical contact with one child even if two are on the visit, and if two children are in attendance a father must chose which one he hugs.
In a joint statement the three Derry and Strabane-based councillors said: “They are trying to force prisoners to take visits in what can only amount to a hostile environment, with perspex screens, little or no physical contact and an intrusive prison guard presence.
“The effect this would have on families, in particular children would make the visit an intimidating and intrusive experience instead of one conducive with the rights of both visitors and prisoners.
“There is no reason why visiting conditions can not return to the pre-Covid situation in tandem with the rest of society.”
Éistigi, a republican youth group, has been lobbying elected representatives to support the return of full contact visits for prisoners and their families.
“We call on everyone concerned to act and not let this go unopposed and unchallenged. We urge ordinary members of the public to take an interest and spread the word about what republican prisoners and their families are facing,” they said.
“At present these prisoners haven’t seen or embraced their families and children in two years.”