of the consequences of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement
has been the withdrawal of what was in practice a
form of political status. Long Kesh, the
symbol of incarcerated Republicanism and the 1980/1981
hunger strikes was gradually emptied, and once all
the prisoners were out, closed down. This gives the
impression that Republican prisoners are a thing of
the past, and that the prison struggle belongs to
history. With Long Kesh closed, the centre of gravity
of the prison system in the North has shifted to Maghaberry.
While Long Kesh and the prison struggle that had gone
on there had been very visible (be it from the M1
motorway, the many marches and rallies, most people
from the Nationalist community knew at least one family
with a member in prison, etc), what is striking about
Maghaberry is its invisibility. Who even knows where
HMP Maghaberry is and how to get there? How many people
in West Belfast could put a face to the name of a
prisoner? And what about the protests: a mass
meeting of six people forming a white line is
hardly the expression of popular resistance. But more
important: do people on the outside actually know
what is going on inside the prisons?
is not just some form of political status
that Republican prisoners have lost; more than that
it is their own personal safety that they have lost.
Outside the prison, no one (authorities included)
is trying to force Protestant and Catholic people
to live together. On the contrary, everything is done
(planning of housing estates etc) to practically institutionalise
segregation. While there are certainly cross-community
projects and so on, there is no official policy in
trying to force the so-called two communities
to cohabit together. But, incredibly, there is an
exception for prisoners: Republican prisoners are
forced to live with Loyalist inmates.
that you were a single Republican prisoners locked
up with eleven or twelve members of the UFF and LVF
more than 22 hours a day: this means living in constant
danger. On a regular basis, Republican prisoners have
been attacked by Loyalists, and it is a matter of
time before someone gets killed. This is not a matter
of chance or bad luck that
those incidents have happened. It is a structural
problem. Those attacks are the only logical outcome
of the forced integration policy introduced
after the Good Friday Agreement.
good way to evaluate a given society is to see how
the human rights of its most disadvantaged members
are being respected. There was a lot of talk about
the benefits of the human rights agenda
included in the Good Friday Agreement. The prisoners,
one of the most disadvantaged category of population,
are still waiting to see the benefits of this human
rights talk. The state fails to protect the
rights of the prisoners partly because the struggle
of the prisoners rejects the very legitimacy of that
state. Recently, prison guards have gone on strike
to ask that more be done to assure their safety, but
nothing is done to secure the safety of the prisoners
they are supposed to be guarding. The situation can
only get worse.
the prisons, a small number of people are trying to
organise a campaign to expose what is happening inside
the prisons. Most of those would belong to political
groups to which the prisoners would be sympathetic,
but there is not enough involvement of the families
of the prisoners. Their involvement is probably even
more important than the political groups, because
they are those most affected by the situation after
the prisoners themselves. Also, more involvement of
ex-prisoners would be necessary. As former prisoners,
they have first hand experience of "being inside"
and can emphatise with those currently in jail.
is still a lot of information work to be done. Not
enough people know about what is going on. The situation
in the prisons need to become part of public consciousness.
one of the weaknesses of the current segregation campaign
is that it is perhaps not yet ready to take the logical
step of questioning the very existence of a prison
system, why people end up or should be imprisoned
in the first place. This is not just a theoretical
question. For example, how is it that we tolerate
that illegal immigrants end up interned in Maghaberry?
Should we not campaign as well not just for segregation
of refugees in Maghaberry, but for the abolition of
the prison system? The very idea of a prison system
should be questioned, not just its symptoms.
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