HMP Maghaberry- Civil rights founder calls for fact-finding mission (Seachranaidhe1)
There was, at least superficially, what appeared to have been a genuine bid to avoid conflict between protesting supporters of non-conforming republican prisoners and participants at a loyalist order march, on the streets of Derry, on August 12th 2010. Such resulted in long negotiations before an agreement was formally established. All those involved in these negotiations; the prisoner representatives, the facilitators and the gaol/N.I.O representatives all signed up to it, as a bond of their sincerities.
As part of the arrangement it was “agreed” that a new technology led search would replace the humiliating strip searches in place prior to 12th August. Since Sept 2010 that agreement has been reneged upon. On as many as 40 occasions, political prisoners have
been subjected to brutal forced strip searches, while leaving for and returning from court and hospital appointments.
Within the prison and within merely four weeks, this alleged agreement seemed to have been completely abandoned, by the POA-Prison Officers’ Association. Since then there has been what can only be described as a deafening silence from certain quarters. This is certainly the case with a number of political representatives who assured both the prisoners and their families that they would be monitoring the situation and would challenge any human rights violations against prisoners. There should be no hiding place for anyone committing such offences against prisoners, and therefore an urgent need for a humanitarian fact-finding delegation to visit this prison at the earliest possible opportunity.
Towards the end of February, as a co-founder of NICRA in 1967, and co-ordinator of the Derry & N-West Civil Rights Network, I penned, what has become known as a “global letter”. In such, I endeavoured to highlight known facts pertaining to HMP Maghaberry.
The letter commented: “There was a promise that strip-searches would be replaced by the use of airport-style, electronic scanning. No doubt many members of the public breathed a sigh of relief that the prison authorities had abandoned their ‘old ways’ of carrying out body-searches.
A recent letter, no doubt smuggled out of that institution, signed by Damien McLaughlin, was highly upsetting and graphic in its detail. In short, this man has been subjected to ten violent strip searches in the previous twelve weeks, before his letter was posted on the Internet as recently as February 13th.
The men are led to a small cubicle by two prison officers and held there for around an hour if they refuse to co-operate, and at times a governor will read them the prison rules. Outside a riot squad consisting of eight members is getting ready. They enter in full riot gear, helmets, shields, and body protection to overpower each individual prisoner. Their jeans and other outer garments go first, then shoes, socks, vests and even boxer shorts are embarrassingly forcibly removed, while one officer holds down the head, and others tightly grip arms and legs.
The prisoners describe this modus operandi in different ways, speaking of it as “agony” or “extremely painful”. They write that often it is “hard to breathe because of gloves covering face and mouth”. On occasions their clothes are actually cut off. When returned they are escorted to their cells, more times than not, suffering great stress and pain. What their relatives are going through I can only guess at and no wonder they are protesting. As in the civil rights days the streets will undoubtedly become the only reliable parliament for bringing grievances and issues unto the public arena.
I ask myself. My God, what has changed for the political prisoners? What are ‘our’ politicians saying or doing on this issue? Has the local media taken a “Three ‘wise’ monkeys” approach for one dubious reason or another?
Agree or disagree with their political perspective, Irish prisoners should not be so brutally abused. These strip searches are not merely inhumane and degrading, but, in my humble opinion, amount to torture, plain and simple. Mr. McLaughlin’s letter is a wake-up call to all of us. We know too well from recent history that the plight of prisoners, in the here and now, can only be ignored at our peril”.
Alleged abuses need to be highlighted publicly by everyone as and when they happen. Those who gave those assurances in August 2010 should now be challenged to publicly condemn such barbaric treatment and hold to account those who have perpetuated such acts. A special onus falls on those who profess to be advocates of human rights, therefore this appeal, “To Whom It May Concern”.