The Blanket

Questioning the Prison System in the North

Liam O Ruairc

One 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?

It 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.

Imagine 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.

A 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.

Outside 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.

There 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.

Perhaps 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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It is better to be defeated on principle than to win on lies.
- Arthur Calwell
Index: Current Articles

6 December 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Questioning the Prison System in the North
Liam O Ruairc


Britain's New Moral Authority to Shoot Republicans
Anthony McIntyre


Teething Troubles
Henry McDonald


Setting The Record Straight

Billy Mitchell


Herr Henry Struts Again
Anthony McIntyre


Even the Taxi Drivers Say It: "Likud has Failed"
Uri Avnery


The Letters page has been updated.


1 December 2002


Blanket Special

3 Part Series
Capo di Tutti i Capi?:
The Three Families

Part Three: The Civil Rights Veterans' Story
Anthony McIntyre


Asking the Awkward Questions
Terry Harkin


West Belfast Firefighters Support
Davy Carlin


Crime And The Family

Sean Smyth


Juliana McCourt
Anthony McIntyre


A Glimmer of Hope
Michael Dahan




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The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
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