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Media Statement released in December 2001, on events in Portlaoise gaol.
On Friday 23rd November 2001, the Republican POWs in Portlaoise Gaol staged a peaceful protest to highlight the ongoing denial of compassionate parole to political prisoners. Much of the subsequent media coverage of this protest was extremely inaccurate. The POWs, therefore, would like to take this opportunity to clarify the nature and sequence of the events that occurred in Portlaoise Gaol over that weekend.
Tension had been building within the Gaol over a number of years as a result of the Dublin governments repeated refusal to grant compassionate parole to Republican POWs - a traditional 48 hour release to allow the prisoners to visit sick or dying relatives. An unofficial policy of discrimination was clearly in place, as this basic humanitarian right was freely available to other political and social prisoners across the country.
For over two years, the POWs attempted to resolve the issue through peaceful negotiations, but these attempts were frustrated by the Dept. of justice`s refusal to discuss the issue, or even meet with the prisoners appointed representative.
On Friday 23rd November 2001, the situation in the prison came to a head. One prisoner learned that his two year old son had been hospitalized, and immediately applied for a temporary release to visit the child. The application was denied a petty and vindictive decision, considering the man in question had less than eight weeks of his sentence left to serve.
The POWs decided to stage a peaceful protest to highlight the intolerable nature of the situation. That evening, they refused to return to their cells, informing the prison authorities that the protest would continue till Monday morning. Volunteers were instructed that, in the event of a forcible attempt to return them to their cells, violence should only be used in response to violence from the prison officers, and then only in self defense.
In their protest, the IRA POWs were joined by the INLA POWs from E3 landing, who staged a parallel protest in solidarity with the IRA demands.
Later that evening, the IRA O/C and adjutant met with a prison governor to discuss the situation in the Gaol. The governor in question had been called from a social occasion, and it was immediately apparent to the IRA officers that he had been drinking. He informed the prisoner leadership that all necessary means would be used to return the prisoners to their cells that night.
Barricades were immediately erected on the Republican landings to prevent an anticipated violent incursion. Several hours later, however, after negotiations with other prison officials, the Barricades were voluntarily removed as a gesture of the prisoners peaceful intent.
On Saturday morning, the Republican landings of Portlaoise Gaol were invaded by several hundred prison officers in body armor and carrying riot shields. The INLA POWs had previously cut through the wire separating the landings, and now joined their IRA Comrades on E2 below. Despite a spirited, non violent defense of the landing, the protest was eventually broken up and the POWs forcibly returned one by one to their cells.
Throughout this process, extreme violence was repeatedly used by prison officers on isolated Volunteers. Men lying on the groin were kicked and stamped in the groin, others were beaten with shields, while in one case a riot officer stood with his boot on a mans neck, screaming personal abuse at his victim.
A number of Volunteer were also seriously beaten after they had returned to their cells, and were being forcibly strip searched. These incidents included several of a particularly perverse nature. In two cases, riot officers gripped and attempted to crush the testicles of naked men with their hands.
The Volunteers were then confined to their cells on 23 hour lock up until Tuesday morning. As a further punishment, Volunteers were informed that all contact with their families was to be forbidden for a period of two months. During this period, the men were to be prevented from receiving visits, writing letters or making phone calls. In addition, a restricted regime of lock ups was to remain in place for the two months, while each man also lost two weeks remission.
Media reports alleging that the prisoners sick child was a `ruse` , that prison officers were `violently` assaulted etc., are demonstrably false. The protest was peaceful throughout, and the prisoners grievances all too genuine. The POWs would also like to make clear that, contrary to allegations from prison officials, no threats were issued against prison officers families.
Despite the current conditions in Portlaoise Gaol, morale among the imprisoned Volunteers is at an all time High. We remain committed to achieving our aim of a just settlement on the issue of compassionate parole . The right of access to sick and dying relatives is not a privilege to be granted and withheld at whim, but a basic human right for all prisoners. Our protests will continue until it has been established as such.
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