On the 1st July 2011 Cógus POWs in Maghaberry embarked upon a “Dirty-protest”. We did so after months of watching the Prison service and David Ford eroding the hard fought for 12th August Agreement. Both had been warned for months that their actions or lack off would force the prisoners hand and we urged the Prison service to work within the framework of the 12th August agreement.
It was a protest we didn’t embark upon lightly as we knew that our actions would bear heavily on our families, it would deflect republicans from the overall struggle outside and would have a physical and emotional impact on ourselves. However to do nothing would have put republican prisoners conditions in a deplorable situation, so with the sacrifices of republican prisoners before us as a beacon, we began a new stage in prison struggle.
The Crux of our angst is the deliberate misrepresentation of the 12th August agreement by the NIPS and the failure of the DOJ and its head David Ford to face down the naysayers, who are reluctant to penal reform and change simply because republican prisoners are the lightning rods of that proposed change. Republican POWs believed that strip-searching and controlled movement was fully addressed in the August 2011 agreement. Sadly rather than embracing the opportunities of the agreement and taking the opportunity to show pragmatism, the NIPS reverted back to their usual dogmatic and rigid policies.
When it was clear that POWs and the DOJ/NIPS were at loggerheads over strip-searching and controlled movement, as it had been pointed out to them on numerous occasions during the circular conversations that passed as the new “forum”. The POWs showed vision and a willingness to promote the agreement and to iron out issues of contention. On the issue of strip-searching pows offered to strip down to their underwear and shake their own under garments, this was the standard and accepted approach to strip-searching in Long Kesh right up to the point of closure in 2000. This proposal was rejected by the prison service that embarked upon a regime of brutal and sexually degrading strip searches of passive republican prisoners.
We began to passively refuse to co-operate with strip-searches while entering and exiting Maghaberry, the response from the prison service was to send a full riot unit into the cells holding us waiting to attend court or hospital. We were charged and pinned to the wall with a shield, then dragged to the floor by screws in full riot gear at all times they applied their knuckles behind our ears as pressure points and twisted our arms and hands into painful locks. They ripped our clothes and underpants from our bodies and then after searching them, through them back at us and exited the cell laughing. This is what David Ford; the so called champion of human rights turns a blind eye to in “his prison”.
Ten months into the “dirty-protest” has seen our health suffer badly as our protest continues. Our cells have lost all natural light as the walls and ceilings are covered in excrement, we are on 23 hour lockup and have to eat and sleep in our own waste. We suffer infections and some men have needed hospital treatment. Our cells are hosed down every six weeks and we are returned to our cells, the process for us starts over again, our long hair and beards are a public testament to Maghaberry visitors that all isn’t well in the “North’s most modern and secure prison”
Ten months into our protests and our refusal to co-operate with strip-searches seen David Ford finally accept what we and others had been saying all along. That technology existed that made strip-searching for the most part redundant in prisons. He accepted a recommendation from Dame Anne Owers to explore alternatives to “full body searching”. Over one and a half million pounds has been spent by the NIPS managing the republican prisoners protest, months of hardship and relationships destroyed in the short to medium term that could have been avoided with common sense and a desire to have a harmonised regime in Roe House.
On the 3rd May 2012 David Ford announced that he was introducing a pilot scheme of two x-ray style machines in Hydebank wood prison and in Magilligan prison. He didn’t say how long the pilot scheme would last or how quickly if accepted it could be installed in Maghaberry. When pushed on this issue Ford has been deliberately vague and ambiguous. There is no doubting that we as protesting POWs have won the argument on the futility of strip-searching in modern times. However without a clear timeline or tight framework to work from our efforts could be placed on the notorious backburner that exists within Maghaberry and our forced strip-searching and controlled movement would be left back in the hands of the NIPS, that is a position we will never accept.
In an effort to defuse tensions and to allow space to watch developments in the pilot scheme, Cógus pows through the independent facilitators informed the NIPS on the 7th May 2012, that if they suspended all strip-searches across Maghberry (as they had done for eight weeks after the 12th august agreement to allow time to install the boss-chair) That Cógus pows would suspend their protest. This offer was refused. On Thursday 10th May 2012 Cógus pows again offered to suspend the protest if the prison service would agree to pows coming down to their under-pants and shaking them ourselves, the prison service response was to offer not to have the search team forcibly strip us and that two prison officers in standard uniform would remove our clothing and that we would pull our underpants elastic out and allow a screw to look down.
We have been attacked and degraded by thugs in uniforms for almost one year now, we would not allow ourselves to be criminalised nor would we allow ourselves to be humiliated with their “latest offer” it was flatly rejected. No one can say that republican prisoners haven’t shown pragmatism or vision, we have no desire to be on protest for protest sake, however as we have shown in this communication, NIPS intransigence is fully to blame for the situation that prevails in Maghaberry today.
On Thursday 23th May 2012 Cógus pows have increased our protest, we slopped out onto the landings as the screws opened up for the morning unlock, the response has been to bring in extra cleaning materials and the screws have spread cat litter all over the landings, we intend in the coming weeks to enhance our protest further, if the NIPS believe that dialogue was or is a sign of weakness our actions now will show them that rather than burning out the protest, our intentions is to increase it. The Door isn’t shut however and if the prison service or Ford is serious about progress they need to act! Not talk! To show their sincerity in moving out of prison conflict.
Can we finish by thanking our families and supporters for your unswerving support, without it our struggle would be impossible…signed Cógus POW rep
POSTED ON BEHALF OF : Rnu Belfast
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