Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Prisoners have rights which must be protected
Two weeks ago a Sinn Fein delegation, including elected representatives Caral Ní Chuilín, John O’Dowd, Paul Maskey and Raymond McCartney visited Maghaberry prison to view conditions and meet with prisoners. Coiste Na nIar Chimí representative Michael Culbert was also part of the delegation.
I had already discussed the Maghaberry situation with Minister of Justice David Ford and asked for clearance for the Sinn Fein prison visit. At the start of this week Martin McGuinness and Raymond McCartney MLA also met with him on this situation.
In addition Caral Ní Chuilín MLA has also met and had several conversations by phone with the Head of Prisons in the north Robin Masefield.
The news on Tuesday evening that Liam Hannaway had ended his hunger strike was therefore welcome news. He had raised a number of issues with the Sinn Féin delegation when they met him two weeks ago. These were discussed directly with the prison administration and the Justice Minister.
It was clear from all the conversations that have taken place that with the necessary political will all of the issues relating to Liam Hannaway, and indeed the wider problems in Roe House can be resolved.
The fact that another prisoner Harry Fitzsimons, who had been held in the punishment block, had now been moved back into Roe House was also a welcome development.
It clear that there are problems with the regime in Maghaberry.
Maghaberry has been the focus of a series of critical reports over a number of years.
In 2006, an inspection made over 155 recommendations but more than half were never implemented. The most recent inspector’s report made over 200 recommendations and concluded that the current situation in Maghaberry could not be allowed to continue.
Last year, the prison governor and his deputy were dismissed and 13 members of staff disciplined following an inquiry into the suicide of a prisoner in August 2008.
Subsequent reports were highly critical of the way the prison was being run and disciplinary procedures were taken against prison staff who it was alleged were surfing the net and watching television rather than being on suicide watch.
Four prisoners have taken their own lives in the last 4 years in Maghaberry.
A new governor, brought in last July to implement reform, faced open hostility from staff. Following his car registration number and name being found in a prisoner's cell the governor resigned amidst fears for his safety. Subsequently the Prisoner Ombudsman Pauline McCabe was asked to carry out an investigation when it was alleged that a member of the prison staff planted the note in order to intimidate the Governor.
Earlier this year, increasing tensions between staff and prisoners culminated in protests by a number of segregated prisoners, including a 48-hour lock-in of prisoners during Easter.
Recently relatives of some of these prisoners have been in contact with Sinn Féin representatives in relation to the situation in Maghaberry.
The Sinn Fein delegation that visited Maghaberry on May 14th had access to the segregated wing and met with ten prisoners representing various groups within Roe House. The delegation also met with the current governor, Alan Craig, and other members of the administration.
The prisoners raised a number of issues. They included complaints about a number of punitive actions such as the use of strip-searching as harassment of both prisoners and their visitors and a range of other conditions-related issues that were very familiar to the former prisoners on the delegation. The prisoners cited one clear example of this. Despite the fact that it was obviously unnecessary, prisoners appearing by video link for remand were being subjected to strip-searches.
The proximity of dogs in the visit processing area, the presence of the PSNI in the visitors’ area, the public identification of those who are to be strip-searched, and visitors being threatened with arrest if they refuse to be strip-searched, were also raised.
The delegation assured them their concerns would be conveyed to the prison administration, the Prison Service and to the Justice Minister – and they have.
Republicans have a long experience of prisons and of hostile and antagonistic prison systems. It is our belief that prisoners and their families must be treated with dignity and respect. Prisoners have rights and the prison regime should reflect this.
There is currently a review taking place into the prison regime. It is our intention to continue to pursue all the matters involved with the Minister of Justice and the Prison system.