(en) "Irish Rebels in English Prisons," PNL September 1997 (f

Lyn Gerry (redlyn@loop.com)
Tue, 26 Aug 1997 21:19:56 +0000


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------- Forwarded Message Follows ------- Date: Tue, 26 Aug 1997 22:19:55 -0400 (EDT) From: "Nancy K. Rhodes" <nkrhodes@mailbox.syr.edu> To: media-l@tao.ca Subject: "Irish Rebels in English Prisons," PNL September 1997 (fwd) Reply-to: media-l@tao.ca

The following appears in the September 1997 issue of the Syracuse Peace Newsletter (PNL), Syracuse, New York/USA. A special issue featuring a number of articles on prisoners and related issues, the cover also relates to this article. It reproduces the Long Kesh "University of Freedom" graphic and dubs this the "Back to School" issue.

IRISH REBELS IN ENGLISH PRISONS POWs' Fate a Test of British Intentions F. Stuart Ross

Last month 12 human rights organizations* published an open letter across Britain and Ireland, warmly welcoming the restoration of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) cease-fire 18 months after its collapse. But they warned that a "just and lasting peace" will be enormously difficult without clear movement on the prisoner issue.

About 400 Irish "republican" men and women -- they seek British departure from the North of Ireland and reunification with the South -- now find themselves in prison as a direct result of the conflict in the North. The Sinn Fein party enters peace talks for the first time this month with prisoner release a centerpiece of its agenda. In days to come, activists in Britain, Ireland and the US will renew campaigns for early release for all prisoners of the conflict. Many will likely focus first on prisoners in England. Their plight is most extreme. Under Prime Minister John Major, their treatment in Britain actually worsened during the 1994 IRA cease-fire, hastening its end.

PNL readers know about Roisin McAliskey and conditions of her imprisonment in England from the April and June issues. Since the days of Thomas Clarke and Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa -- jailed revolutionaries of the late 1800s, then called Fenians -- Irish political prisoners have endured incredibly harsh confinement in England. During the last IRA cease-fire, a parliamentary delegation from Fine Gael -- an Irish political partu in the South known for hostility to Northern republicanism -- went so far as to call Britain's treatment of these prisoners "cruel and inhumane."

Today, 26 individuals charged or convicted of offenses connected with "the Troubles" are held in Belmarsh, Whitemoor, Full Sutton and Frankland prisons. Some are amongst the longest serving prisoners in the conflict, with over 20 years behind bars. They face conditions far more severe than comrades in Ireland (North or South) or the US.

Activists have long campaigned for repatriation of republican prisoners in English jails to prisons in the North of Ireland. England routinely grants transfer to "non-political" offenders but has systematically refused republican requests. Prisoners, their families, and campaigners for penal reform and human rights consistently argue that transfer should occur simply on humanitarian grounds, irrespective of cease-fires. In effect, English imprisonment is a "double sentence," punishing both prisoner and loved ones by denying regular contact.

The British government nows accepts the principle of transfer. It has signed the European Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons and procedues are already in place. But actual progress has been painfully slow. The few transferred back on temporary status can be returned to England any time. The past British track record on transfer has been one of political gamesmanship subject to whim.

The vindictiveness of the British government and its prison regime is exposed by the exccesive, unnecessary security measures imposed on Irish republicans in English jails. One such "security measure" is the strip search. Prison authorities easily and often abuse this humiliating practice (particularly for women). Some prisoners have been strip searched before and after court hearings, legal consultations, and visits -- despite constant guard and no physical contact with another person. Some visting families have been strip searched. Still, nothing of significance has ever been found during a strip search.

"Special Secure Units" (SSUs) confine those who are judged high escape risks or who might endanger themselves or others. Only in England have republican prisoners been held in SSUs. Locked in 21 hours daily under constant surveillance, they have endured solitary confinement, often deprived of sleep, sunlight, reading materials and other mental stimulation. Over half the republican prisoners in England were in SSUs until August 19. Suddenly, 13 were "reclassified" out of the SSUs. The next day, the British Prison Service announced it would also consider repatriating 18 prisoners.

This past March, an Amnesty International report claimed the SSU regime violates international standards regarding "cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment." Conditions inside SSUs have led to serious physical and psychological disorders in prisoners. Britain's own 1996 inquiry into the SSU system, headed by Sir Donald Acheson, concluded that long-term imprisonment in SSUs could cause mental illness. Amnesty International urged the British to publish the results of their own inquiry and to act on its recommendations..

Not all parties need convincing that the prisoner issue is urgent. Dublin's new government under Bertie Ahern has moved toward resuming an early release policy for certain republican inmates it holds.

Still, most eyes are on London. The tomb-like SSUs are not permanantly closed and just one has been "mothballed." Given Britain's response to the last IRA cease-fire, decisive steps from Tony Blair's new governenmt would build confidence. A firm start would be immediate closure of Special Secure Units and repatriation of all republican prisoners now serving time in England.

*Signatories were: Pat Finucane Centre, Dublin Peace and Justice Group, Britain and Ireland Human Righst Centre, British Irish Righst Watch, Centre for Research and Documentation, Committee on the Administration of Justice, Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Laois Justice and Peace Group, Liberty (National Council for Civil Liberties), and The Table Campaign. .... Stuart is a native Syracusan working with the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry, North of Ireland. Begun in 1989, the independent resource center is named for a human rights attorney murdered that year by loyalist paramilitaries. Reach Stuart via e-mail at <pfc@iol.ie>. PFC's website is <http://www.serve.com/pfc/>. *********************

The PNL encourages reproductions of our material so long as you credit the source, do not alter the text, and provide us with a copy of your reprint to Syracuse Peace Council, Attn.: Tim Judson, 924 Burnet Avenue, Syracuse, New York 13203, USA.

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