A Prison That Was Always Going To Fail


It wouldn't have been so bad if the Long Kesh 'experience' had been as spicy as that described in a new book, 'Inside The Maze', by journalist Chris Ryder, whose publication appears timed to coincide with the recent closing of the notorious jail.*

He writes that, "apart from wives and girlfriends, who often brought blankets to the visits to mask the fumblings, what could be called 'comfort women' were sometimes recruited to visit prisoners. A prison officer recalls seeing girls going from cubicle to cubicle. 'They were bold as brass about it and didn't even stop if you looked into the cubicle.'"

Progressive Unionist Party leader, David Ervine, and I, who had both been in Long Kesh at the time referred to, simultaneously burst into laughter in RTE's Belfast studio last Tuesday when Pat Kenny asked Ryder about these concubines, none of whom we or our comrades had the pleasure of meeting.

It was just one of the many apocryphal stories, a bit of sauced-up gossip about the jail, spread usually by the prisoners' detractors. Another yarn was that the food was of the finest cuisine, comparable to that served in the Europa Hotel. Yet, even the rats used to turn up their noses when offered our dinners.

One of the major difficulties for Ryder is that although his book is subtitled 'The Untold Story of the Northern Ireland Prison Service', it primarily and, indeed, inevitably concentrates on the real epic which captured the media and public's imagination - prison resistance, which, in turn, was mostly the resistance of the republican inmates. Furthermore, this story has been told much better in David Beresford's classic, 'Ten Men Dead', and in 'Nor Meekly Serve My Time', which was written by the prisoners themselves.

He tells of how republicans went over prison walls and under walls, cut through fences, escaped as priests, a football team, as Mrs Doubtfires. They shot their way out of Crumlin Road Jail and out of the High Court; sawed through the portholes of the prison ship Maidstone and swam across Belfast Lough; cut their way through perimeter fences or tunnelled under them. Thirty-seven of them went out through the front gate of Long Kesh one September afternoon disguised as the Sunday dinner.

Escapees were shot, they were beaten and savaged by guard dogs.

Many of the internees were not members of the Republican Movement. Most of those young men (and women) who from 1976 onwards resisted the policy of criminalisation had already been arrested under special laws, had suffered ill-treatment whilst being interrogated, were convicted by judges sitting in special, non-jury courts, using special rules of evidence, only to be told when they arrived in the H-Blocks that they weren't special and that they had better put on a criminal uniform and obey orders. One third of the prison officers had been imported from Britain on special bounties. Most of them had a military background.

Republicans served years in solitary confinement or in bare cells wearing only a blanket, without access to books or newspapers or writing material. They lived in cells floating with urine and covered in their own excrement. On punishment diets they were given one slice of bread a day. "One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being," said Archbishop (later Cardinal) O Fiach, when he visited there in 1978.

Mrs Thatcher said they were common criminals who had no public support but their leader, Bobby Sands, became an MP when he got more votes in Fermanagh and South Tyrone than Thatcher did in Finchley. And when the story of the peace process was to be written it was acknowledged that the contribution and support of those prisoners was crucial to its success, whereas Thatcher's only success in life was in waging war and impoverishing her subjects.

Thatcher once asked O Fiach why it was that Britain could be at peace with Germany and France despite their ancient enmities but still in conflict with Ireland. "Well, Madam," he replied, "it's because you don't occupy the Ruhr."

Long Kesh (renamed The Maze by the British ) was a jail built on a lie - that lie being that there was a system of justice in the North, that fifty-years of grievances under sectarian rule, the odd pogrom and curfew, the torture and internment of nationalists, the shooting of civil rights demonstrators, was tolerable and didn't justify shots being fired back. Ryder quotes one fairly candid prison officer who guarded the blanket men: "At first we thought they were dirty animals. The stench was incredible. Our stomachs turned when we went near the cells and we couldn't understand how anyone could live in such filth. But eventually there was some grudging respect for those on the protest. They were incredibly determined. I didn't agree with what they were doing but you had to admire them for sticking it out. At first I thought it would only last for a few days, or a week or two at the most, but they kept going for years and then queued up to give their lives. I didn't think I would have been able to do it, no matter what the cause."

One former governor distinguished between loyalists and republicans. He told Ryder: "The vast majority of the Loyalists would have ended up in prison for one crime or another but everyone understood that very few indeed of the Republicans would ever have seen the inside of a prison if it hadn't been for the troubles."

I don't hold with this stereotype of the loyalist prisoner, though certainly, loyalist paramilitary organisations are deeply sectarian and corrupt, but loyalist organisations are also a political product of their society and the conflict in the North. The communities in the North and the protagonists have yet to fully tell their simple stories, as distinct from the point-scoring of the propaganda war. We on the republican side who supported armed struggle inflicted pain, suffering and death on our enemies, and on innocents.

I would have preferred more of a narrative from Ryder about the experiences and personal journeys of prison officers and their families, as implied by the title. Twenty-nine warders were killed by republicans and loyalists in reaction to the retrograde penal policies introduced by government. But I never knew that over fifty also committed suicide, although I had heard about the Chief Medical Officer putting a shotgun to his head because he couldn't get over the hunger strike. Ryder tells of female warder Mabel Hempson, who was severely disabled in a gun and bomb attack as she and other colleagues, including one who was killed, were leaving Armagh Jail one day in April 1979.

"She's in a wheelchair, and the prison service thought she was dead ten years ago," said Finlay Spratt of the Prison Officers Association. "She's now forty-six and she was twenty-six when it happened. She was just sitting in the wheelchair all day long, nothing for her at all. When she eventually contacted us I went out and it was unbelievable what she was enduring. We put a ramp in the back of her house, and tarmacked it. Then we got her an electric wheelchair and a van, adapted for the disabled, to get her about."

In Crumlin Road Jail back in 1978 I wouldn't look at or talk to 'the screws'. They beat the blanket men and they paid for it with their lives. They were the enemy. Yet, twelve years later, back in jail, in the H-Blocks, political status once again restored, the atmosphere was relaxed, the warders were very helpful. We used to stand at the grills and talk, my interests being music and books. I gave Eugene McCabe's 'Death and Nightingales' to a warder who had a reputation for brutality during the blanket protest but who was now on good relations with the prisoners. He said the book made him think. With another I discussed Frank McGuinness's play about the UVF at the Somme.

We were now seeing each other as human beings, not enemies. We were now listening to each other, which is probably the most important thing that one person can do with another.

And, finally, to the truth, after the deaths of prisoners on protest, prison officers, and civilians and children on the streets in collateral incidents related to prison events. A former governor of the H-Blocks, speaking about prison officers, told Ryder: "They were used as cannon fodder by governments and put in the frontline of a battle for the false aim of criminalisation that was always going to fail."

* 'Inside the Maze - The Untold Story of the Northern Ireland Prison Service' by Chris Ryder, Methuen, £17.99 H/B

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison