Brutality in Maghaberry Prison - the Background


Earlier today over 50 people protested outside Amnesty International HQ, in Dublin, against the brutal treatment of republican prisoners in Maghaberry prison in Antrim. This has flared up again with, for instance, republican prisoner Martin Kelly having his arm broken and face stomped on by the riot squad only 5 days ago. Here is the background to the struggle of these political prisoners for basic human rights.


When the H-blocks closed as a part of the peace process in 2000, republican prisoners were put into Maghaberry prison because it is the only high security prison in the North of Ireland. But anti-Good Friday Agreement republicans were getting imprisoned in Maghaberry from the late 90's. The prison administration straight away treated all political prisoners as “criminal”. The rights that were gained from the prison struggle in the late 70's early 80's were taken away.

Since then republican prisoners have struggled against the prison system through acts of protest. In the early days republicans were expected to live with loyalists in the same prison block. There was 23 hour lock up daily (prisoners were kept locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day) and forced strip searches were carried out. Forced strip searches are incredibly degrading, intimidating and humiliating, and are no better than a sexual assault. Forced strip searches are very violent - while being forced strip searched prisoners have received number of injuries from heavy brushing to broken noses; screws (prison guards) twist the prisoners' arms and wrists to near breaking point, and some prisoners had their clothes cut off them.

On the 8th of September 2003 the prison administration agreed that republican, loyalist and social prisoners should be held in separate prison blocks. Republican prisoners ended protest because of getting their own prison block, as well as some other guarantees from the prison administration. The prison created Roe house for Republican prisoners. As soon as Republican prisoners entered Roe house the regime of brutality started again. The prison administration went back on its promises.

Prisoners were searched every time they were going to and coming back from places, such as the canteen and the yard, their cells were searched daily and they were viciously forced strip searched returning from visits, court and hospital appointments. Prisoners were locked up 22 hours a day and had to eat all meals in their cells. This was done to keep prisoners from associating. All opportunity was taken by the prison administration to treat each republican prisoner as an individual, instead of treating all republican prisoners as a group or groups. In doing this, the prison administration wasn't recognizing the republican prisoners' structures (each republican group i.e. RIRA, CIRA, INLA in the later year ONH and IRA have their own individual group structures and appointed O.C. or Officer Commanding). Prisoners' movements were controlled to the extent that every time a prisoner left his cell they were escorted by 3 screws.

From then till 2010 republican prisoners continually tried to win back conditions that were agreed upon in 1981. On Easter Sunday April 4th 2010 all republican prisoners in Roe house went on protest, they barricaded themselves in the canteen. When they were removed from the canteen the prisoners continued their protest in their cells. They commenced a limited dirty protest. After months of protest a facilitation group made up of 3 delegates - a trade unionist, a community worker and a Sri Lankan mediator - came into the prison to try create a deal to end the protest. The prisoners appointed a group of prisoners to represent them. The prisoners wanted the ending of forced strip searches and the end of controlled movement and wanted a more humane way of searches carried out. (The BOSS chair is one such humane way of searching prisoners, the prisoner sits on the chair and it can detect if the prisoner has anything metal on them. Both forced strip searching and controlled movements are ways to intimidate prisoners and degrade them.) On the 12th of August 2010 the prison administration agreed to the prisoners' demands. It was agreed controlled movements would be stopped and free association would be allowed (free association would allow republican prisoners to mix together for long periods of time throughout each day).

The prison administration once again went back on their promise, and forced strip searching continued. As a result, republican prisoners still refused to strip when ordered by the screws. The protest continued, the prisoners recommended dirty protest, smearing their excrement on the walls and pouring their urine under the gap at the bottom of the cell door. The prisoners lived in nightmarish conditions while on protest having to spread their own excrement across their cell walls, pour their urine under the tiny gap at the bottom of the reinforced cell door and having to construct small makeshift dams to try and help stop the urine flowing back into their cells. While having to live in these horrible conditions was bad enough during the warmer months of the summer the prisoner’s cells were invaded by swarms of blue bottle flies laying their eggs in the excrement on the walls. Prisoners were waking up in the morning having to pick maggots out of their hair and brush the maggots off that were crawling on their body. Throughout the summer months the prisoner’s cell walls would be alive teeming with maggots.

If any person saw an animal living in these conditions, they would be horrified and disgusted. Not only were they having to live in fear, the prisoners were subjected to all sorts of abuse and violent assault. Some prisoners were battered black and blue, left in a bloody mess with broken arms, legs or ribs. The prison administration would not allow some prisoners medical help. Prisoners were also subjected to what can only be described as mental torture, screws banging on the prisoners cell doors in the middle of the night and shining bright lights in through the spy hole on the cell doors into the prisoner's face to wake them up while they slept. Regularly prisoners were not allowed use the prison phone to call their family and loved ones.

In one case prison staff planted personal information of the prison governor in Republican prisoner Brendan McConville’s cell. The prison ombudsman, after the investigation concluded that the note containing the governor’s personal information was planted in McConville’s cell and a screw was responsible for planting it. At the time Brendan McConville and John Paul Wooten were awaiting trial for the alleged killing of a cop. They were both found guilty. The evidence used against them was fabricated. The police had one eye witness that claimed he saw the shooting happen, but this witness only came to the police 11 months after the incident. “Thereafter he was seen to be evasive and confused about numerous aspects of his testimony.” When he was in court under cross examination the witness admitted he was only 50% sure he saw the person that fired the shot. The witness' father also gave evidence in the case. The witness' father told the court his son “was known by his family by the nickname Walter Mitty” The father also stated “you can't believe a word he says!” (For more information on their case look at:…/they-are-not-your-sons-but-what…

18 months later on the 1st of November 2012 prison officer David Black was shot dead while on his way to work in Maghaberry prison. A few days later the prisoners agreed to come off the dirty protest and give the prison administration time to implement the terms from the agreement. Over the following months controlled movements were ended, 22 hour lock up was also ended. This gave prisoners more freedom within their landings and to associate with their comrades. But forced strip searches continued.

On Monday the 2nd of February 2015 trouble flared back up. On that morning jail staff outside of Roe house set off the alarm. The prison SO (Senior Officer) asked the prisoners would they go back to their cells to be locked in, the prisoners agreed. As the prisoners were making their way back to their cells the riot squad ran onto the landings. The SO told the riot squad they weren’t needed, but they pushed him out of their way. The tyrants wearing black boiler suits, face mask, helmet and rubber gloves grabbed republican prisoner Martin Kelly as he was making his way back to his cell. The riot squad proceeded to assault him. They then drag him back to his cell where they continued to assault him. As a result Martin Kelly was left with a broken arm and had to get several stitches to his face as a result of the riot squad stomping on his face. The prison administration denied Martin Kelly access to an outside hospital. The prisoners were put on lock down till Wednesday 5th of February. While on lockdown the prisoners were denied phone calls and visits.

TDs in the Dáil, Clare Daly TD, Maureen O'Sullivan TD, Mick Wallace TD, Thomas Pringle TD, have issued a statement to express their concern at the situation in Maghaberry Prison. For the last number of years TDs from the Dail have visited republican and loyalist prisoners in Maghaberry, they are shocked at the reports that are coming from Maghaberry about riot squad assaulting prisoners and dragging them back to their cells. The TDs have called on the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice David Ford “to make a statement to explain why the riot squads were involved and what injuries were sustained?”

The Republican prisoners don’t want much; they just want to be treated like human beings, and not be abused, brutally assaulted and forced strip searched. In Portlaoise prison there is no strip searching. When prisoners are coming and going from the jail, and when coming back from visits or court, when they get searched all they have to do is walk through a full body scanner. The scanner can detect if the prisoner has any metal objects on their body, then a screw pats down the prisoner's body to make sure they don't have any objects on their body. The question has to be asked, why can’t this same system be implemented in Maghaberry prison? In Portlaoise prison there is virtually no trouble between prison staff and the republican prisoners, so why can't this be the same in Maghaberry prison?

Prisoners have a right to live with dignity and a right to well-being. The British state is denying the republican prisoners in Maghaberry these basic human rights; instead the British state has the prisoners living in a degrading and abusive despotic system of “justice”.