Republican Women Prisoners
Discrimination against Republican Women Prisoners
A policy of discrimination against Republican women prisoners has been blatently and systematically exercised since the opening of Maghaberry prison in 1986.
In recent years the NIO [Northern Ireland Office] abolished lock-up [confinement to cell] for ALL prisoners in Long Kesh and for male prisoners in Lagan House, Maghaberry. More recently, lock-up was also done away with for two women on A2 in Mourne House in Maghaberry. The ending of lock-up has not been extended to Republican women prisoners who continue to be locked from 4.30 pm to 5.30 pm and from 8.30 pm to 8.00 am, a total of 12.5 hours daily.
The official reason given by NIO for ending lock-up in Long Kesh was the lack of jail sanitation there. However there are toilets in all cells in Maghaberry, and yet the NIO went on to abolish lock-up for many prisoners here. The NIO have set out published criteria which they say a prisoner must meet in order to have the lock-up ended although this applies only to prisoners Maghaberry. The first criteria is that a prisoner must have been in prison for at least 8 years. Several Republican women prisoners meet this condition and yet have not had lock-up ended. The second criteria is that the prisoner must be on low or medium as opposed to a `High risk’ security classification. We believe that the imposition of this particular criteria is designed to exclude Republican women from having their lock-up ended because Republicans are generally kept on high security classifications until they are released from prison. Added to this, many of the men who are in Lagan House, Maghaberry, and thus have no lock-up, were `high risk’ security until entering Lagan house but then this classification was conveniently lowered to medium or low risk to suit the criteria set out by the NIO.
Also, some prisoners have been kept in Lagan House who did not meet the criteria at all. Paul Kavanagh for example, was a category A’, maximum risk prisoner and yet he was held in Lagan House during his stay in Maghaberry. All of this demonstrates how useless the criteria set out by the NIO is and why it is that Republican women should not be prevented from having their lock-up ended on the basis of such criteria.
In addition, earlier in the year, the No.1 Governor here in Maghaberry suggested that if Republican women prisoners wanted to be treated the same as our male counterparts in Long Kesh, including having lock-ups ended, we would have to move to the H Blocks in order to receive that treatment. In response to this suggestion, we drew up a document inquiring about the nature of living accomodation women prisoners could expect to receive in the H-Blocks, as well raising questions about educational and other facilities there. The NIO have been in possession of this document since early February 1997 and in all that time not only have they not answered our queries, they have also failed to acknowledge receipt of the document altogether. Since the governor here offered to move Republican women prisoners to the H-Blocks where lock-up for us would be automatically ended, this makes ridiculous the notion that our security classifications are an all important factor in preventing our lock-up from being ended here. It also makes nonsense of the idea that we must be in prison a certain length of time before lock-up can be ended. The governor felt that our lock-up could not be abolished within Maghaberry because this would mean having to extend this facility to all prisoners in Maghaberry, something which the governor did not want to do. The fact though that Paul Kavanagh and others were situated in Lagan House despite not meeting the criteria there means that the NIO is unconcerned with appearing to favour some prisoners and not others. Also, the No. I governor of Maghaberry has stated that even if a prisoner meets all of the relevant criteria they may never enter Lagan House and have lock-up ended simply because their general conduct has given the governor reason for concern. Again, this further example of the criteria being side-stepped or ignored demonstrates that the criteria is senseless in the first place and should not be used to prevent lock-up for Republican women prisoners being abolished.
The existence of 12.5 hours lock-up each day results in Republican women prison havone only limited access to telephones. Whereas the hundreds of prisoners with no lock-up can make calls any time day or night, Republican women prisoners find that they are unable to contact family members, friends and legal advisors simply by being unable make telephone calls after 8.30pm.
Education facilities within the womens’ prison have always been inferior to those enjoyed on the male side.
The education wing in the male prison is available in the evenings and at weekends when staffing levels permit, but for women prisoners evening and weekend access is never an option, regardless of staffing levels. Republican women prisoners do not ask for special privilege status but demand parity of treatment. By allowing certain conditions and `privileges’ to some prisoners but not extending the same to Republican women, the NIO is guilty of operating a policy of discrimination for which there can be no justification. What seems ironic is that in those areas where women were viewed as having an advantage over male prisoners, such as having more items allowed in parcels and having tissues and deodorants supplied through prison stores, governors and the NIO moved quickly to relieve this situation. They cut down on womens’ parcels and stopped supplying tissues and deodorants to women prisoners. The Governor and NIO are keen to ensure that they do not appear to discriminate in favour of women prison, but do not seem at all concerned about their practice of treating women in an inferior way in important areas of life. When it was pointed out to the No 1 Governor that it is unfair to treat women in this way he simply stated that `life is not fair’.