A REPUBLICAN prisoners welfare group have claimed that a forced strip search carried out on a Pomeroy woman last month amounted to a “brutal sexual assault”.
Sharon Rafferty (38) of Cavana Linn in Pomeroy is currently awaiting trial on five charges related to alleged dissident republican activity in Tyrone.
Detained in Hydebank Prison on remand since May 2012, on August 14 she left the South Belfast prison for the first time in 15 months for a preliminary investigation hearing at Omagh Courthouse alongside her co-accused Gavin Coney, Aidan Coney and Sean Kelly.
According to Mandy Duffy of the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association (IRPWA), prior to her departure from the prison, force was used after Rafferty refused to remove clothing in her cell. The procedure was repeated upon her return according to the spokesperson, who regularly visits the 38-year-old.
Describing the procedure as “degrading and humiliating”, Ms Duffy said the Pomeroy woman had not reported any physical injuries, but had been left “distressed” by the ordeal.
It’s understood to be the first time in recent years that a female republican prisoner has been made subject to a strip search.
In a statement, the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) said it could not comment on individual prisoners.
Strip searching of female prisoners became one of the most controversial features of the troubles when it was introduced in Armagh gaol in 1982.
In more recent times the practice came under the spotlight in 2005, when the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) helped non-republican prisoner Karen Carson bring a judicial review before the High Court in Belfast, claiming frequent strip searching in Hydebank was in violation of articles three and eight of the European Convention on Human Rights, which relate to torture and privacy.
While Justice Girvan said that the articles had not been breached, in his judgement he found that the existing policy “cannot be demonstrated to be proportionate and necessary”.
The comments prompted a review of the NIPS policy for strip searching female prisoners, which led to new policy being introduced in September 2010.
According to the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, the new policy had by 2011 ended routine strip searching of all new arrivals at Hydebank.
Random searches were also scaled back, but the policy of strip searching has been retained, albeit under a new two stage procedure, with the initial stage allowing the prisoner to retain their underwear.
However according to the Department of Justice, “If staff had suspicions or intelligence has been received to suggest the woman could be concealing items in her underwear she would be required to proceed to a level 2 search. This would require her to remove the clothing from the top half of her body including underwear, when dressed she would remove the clothing from the bottom half of her body including her underwear.”
The new provisions also still allow for prisoners to be forcibly strip searched if they refuse to comply with a full search, using “approved control and restraint techniques”.
Speaking to the Tyrone Herald, a spokesperson for the NIHRC said it supports the Prison Review Team’s 2011 recommendation to find an effective and less intrusive alternative to strip searching.
“The Commission’s 2005 research revealed the traumatic impact of strip searching on women and recommended that its use should be exceptional and restricted.”
It said while it had not received any complaints about the use of strip searching on women prisoners in recent times, the body intends to raise the issue of Sharon Rafferty’s forced search on August 14 during a visit with the Prison Service later this month.
Mandy Duffy said both male and female republican prisoners refuse to submit to strip searching, claiming that scanners exist that deem the practice unnecessary. On August 14, she said Rafferty’s three co-accused were also similarly strip searched by force at Maghaberry Prison after refusing to comply with requests to remove clothing.
“There is technology in place that removes the need for any prisoner to remove their clothing,” said the IRPWA spokesperson, “Sharon said she did not want to humiliate herself.”
The fallout over strip searching resulted in male prisoners at Maghaberry Prison staging a dirty protest over 18 months, which came to an end last year when the Department of Justice launched a trial of two millimetre wave scanners at Hydebank. However in February, the department said the scanners would not replace full body searches after a Prison Service report emerged claiming that just 57 per-cent of items tested had been detected.
Republican prisoners at both Hydebank and Maghaberry are currently held in separate wings from the main prison population.
The separation resulted in Sharon Rafferty, as the only republican prisoner in Hydebank, spending more than one year in effective isolation, until she was joined in June this year by a second female republican prisoner, Christine Connor. Mandy Duffy claimed Connor was denied a hospital appointment on August 23 after she refused to comply with a strip search on departure from the prison.
“With the policy now that they are going to be asking republican prisoners to comply with strip searches, that they will refuse, this is going to have an impact on hospital appointments and doctors appointments,” she claimed.
“Christine does have medical concerns. She has kidney problems and she does need to attend her appointments. Therefore she is being denied her rights to medical attention.”
Former Republican prisoner speaks out on Maghaberry protests
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