FECL 41 (February 1996):

HARSH TREATMENT OF IRISH REPUBLICANPRISONERS IN BRITISH JAILS

A number of reports suggest that theconditions of detention of Irish republican prisoners in British jails have deterioratedrather than improved since the beginning of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Thismight have contributed to destabilising the peace process, Irish MPs claim.

 

At the launch of of report a reportof the Irish Fine Gael party on 7 February, two MPs spoke of loss of weight and extremetiredness among prisoners they visited and said all those held in so-called Special SecureUnits (SSU) complain of sleep deprivation, barely adequate food and erratic heating."The ongoing punitive treatment of Irish republican prisoners calls into seriousquestion the sincerity of the UK government statements which asserted publicly almost 18months ago that, in a cease-fire situation, the British response would be generous andimaginative". The delegation blamed the attitude of the British Home Secretary,Michael Howard, for the increasing severity of the prison regime and contended that Irishrepublican prisoners are subjected to discriminatory, "cruel and inhumane"treatment.

Similar accusations regarding detention conditions were made in earlier reports publishedbetween September and December by Fine Gael, the Irish Labour Party and two independentNGOs, British Irish Rights Watch (BIRW) and the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas(ICPO: a subsection of the Catholic Bishops' Commission for Emigrants, based in Dublin).

 

Inhuman and degrading treatment

The very comprehensive report of thetwo NGOs deals among other things with the particularly restrictive regime imposed onIrish republican prisoners in SSUs after attempted escapes from several high securityprisons in 1994.

Of the 52,000-strong prison population in Britain, 11 inmates are regarded as"exceptionally high risk category A". Five of these are republican prisoners andare held in a SSU at Belmarsh prison in London. "The reality of SSUs is that theoccupants can spend up to 10 years in the company of only 10 other people, or less",the BIRW /ICPO report says and describes the situation in Belmarsh as particularly harsh:"[Prisoners] get exercise but no sports, gym, or association except with each other.There is nothing for them to do. They are under constant scrutiny and are strip-searchedevery time they go on and off the corridor. They are confined to their cells for between18 and 19 hours each day. According to their solicitor, all men have lost a lot of weight(...). They are very pale. Their skin is blotchy. Their eyes are reddish". Theinmates blame food of bad quality delivered in dirty trays for stomach disorders and saythey have been deprived of vitamin supplements they were formerly allowed, which areessential in view of their poor diet".

 

Children strip-searched

The NGOs' report further mentionssevere restrictions on family visits. Among other things, since Summer 1995 prisoners andvisitors are separated by a glass screen and all conversation can be heard by a guard.Visiting family members including young children are subjected to 12 separate searches inthe course of each visit. "Because of these sort of difficulties, most families havedecided not to take children to visit their fathers". "In view of the fact thatprisoners and visitors already undergo stringent security checks, this regime of closedvisits is both inhumane and unnecessary, the NGOs' report states.

 

Political rather than humanitarian concerns

The report further suggests thatIrish republican prisoners are discriminated against on political grounds: There arecurrently ten republican prisoners in English prisons who have served more than 20 years.No republican prisoner jailed in England has ever been released on parole. In addition tothe 10 who have already served 20 years or more, another 11 will serve at minimum 16.7years, while the two serving 35 years will serve at least 23 years. This must beconsidered against the fact that the average sentence served by murderers sentenced tolife imprisonment in England and Wales and released in 1992 was 13.2 years.

The report also points at the UK's failure to comply with European Prison Rules, whichstipulate that prisoners should be imprisoned as near as possible to their families.Transfer to Ireland or Northern ireland is often refused and "Families visitingrepublican prisoners in England have sometimes arrived to find that their relative hasbeen moved to another prison many miles away without their having been informed, apractice known as "ghosting".

The important role of Irish republican prisoners and their families in contributing to thepeace process has often been stressed. With this and the recent IRA bomb attacks in mind,their treatment by the British authorities, indeed gives grounds for concern.

 

Sources: Irish Times, 8.2.96;Submission to the European Committee against Torture: The Situation of Irish Prisoners inEngland, British Irish Rights watch and Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas, September1995; Report of the Fine Gael Party delegation visit to republican prisoners in Britain,11-13.9.95; Report of Labour delegation to UK prisons, 19-21.12.95.