Local republican prisoners involved in Maghaberry dispute
April 13, 2010
By Brónagh Murphy
Deteriorating conditions that republican inmates in Maghaberry Prison have been enduring for months led directly to last weekend’s two-day dispute inside the jail. That’s according to family members of local prisoners Turlough McAllister and Liam Campbell, who are housed in the jail’s republican wing, Roe House.
Campbell, from Faughart, and McAllister from Cullyhanna, were among the 28 republican prisoners who barricaded themselves into the jail’s dining room on Easter Sunday in a protest over the worsening conditions.
Tensions have been escalating inside the jail since prison staff began industrial action a number of months ago. Staff at Maghaberry have been engaging in a “withdrawal of goodwill” in protest at the dismissal of a number of night custody officers. This action has led to inmates being locked in their cells for long periods of time and families claim the republican inmates in Roe House are bearing the brunt of the strike action.
As a result of a ‘work to rule’ policy that has been adopted by prison staff, prisoners are being required to eat in their cells, are missing some meals altogether, and are refused exercise and education as a result of the dispute. There has also been disruption to family and legal visits.
The prisoners claim they are being subjected to strip searches when going to family or legal visits, even when they have had no contact with another person and are under continual camera surveillance. They also claim their legal representatives are often forced to wait up to two hours before being allowed a legal visit lasting just five or ten minutes.
The introduction of random strip searches on their visitors is another major issue raised by the inmates. The families say these strip searches are carried out along with the use of sniffer dogs and body searches, with up to four prison warders in the room. Should a visitor refuse, they are told they will be taken to a police station to be searched there. This, they say, places family members, who often are accompanied by young children, in an intimidating situation.
The mounting tension over such issues led to the Easter Sunday protest when the republican prisoners took over the dining room following Mass. The stand-off lasted until Monday night when, following discussions with prison staff regarding their demands, the prisoners returned to their cells voluntarily.
However, the families claim nothing has changed and the prisoners continue to be subjected to 23-hour lock up. Their telephone contact with family is also restricted and, in some cases, inmates have been unable to receive legal or family visits.
It has been reported that family members and legal representatives who have telephoned the jail seeking information have been treated appallingly by staff who have reportedly been abusive and ignorant.
Punishment for the protesting prisoners has yet to be set but is likely to see further loss of privileges, such as letters and visits, and perhaps a spell ‘on the blocks’ – the jail’s punishment cells.
Jim McAllister, Turlough’s father, says the difference in treatment that republican prisoners receive compared to other inmates has culminated in the current crisis.
He claims that one or two prison warders are needed to escort a group of other inmates of the jail, while it takes four or five to accompany individual prisoners of Roe House, as they are deemed to be ‘dangerous’. This leads to ‘staff shortages’ and the refusal of warders to carry out the task. As a result, the republican prisoners are being penalised, subjected to longer lock-ups than other prisoners and are missing out on education classes and exercise.
“They are continually being told that they can’t participate in activities because there is not enough staff,” Jim said. “Other major issues are the fact that the prisoners must eat in their cell next to the toilet and that they are being denied the opportunity to meet with fellow prisoners.
“It’s a humanity issue where men can sit together and chat instead of spending every day in isolation,” he added.
McAllister pointed out that issues including strip searching, control of movement and access to education have been raised repeatedly with the prison authorities however no progress has been made.
Liam Campbell has been on remand in Maghaberry since May last year and is fighting extradition to Lithuania, where his brother, Michael, has been held in Lukiskes prison since January 2007.
Serious concerns have been raised by international mediators about the state of facilities in the jail. In recent months Michael has suffered serious bouts of ill health, which his family say are attributed to the poor conditions. However, he has been refused medical attention and is still denied family visits.
Liam Campbell’s case is currently adjourned until later this month when reports from independent experts, who have visited Lithuania but have been refused an inspection of the jail, will come before the court.
In a statement released after last weekend’s protest ended, the prisoners claimed a deliberate decline in conditions inside the prison forced them to take embark on the protest to highlight the situation.
“In recent times continuous lock-downs and loss of recreation are becoming more and more common. These lock-downs results in us being locked in our cells for days at a time with no food, hot water, and exercise, showers or contact with our families,” the statement read.