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13 December 2007 Edition

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The Mary Nelis Column

‘Super prisons’ not so super

REMEMBER Sister Sarah Clarke, that amazing woman and nun who, more than anyone else, exposed the virulent and repressive nature of the British penal system, not just  because of the plight of the Irish in Britain but also because those imprisoned were from the less-well-off English society.
The British Government is to embark on a major prison building programme in Britain and the North of Ireland, part of which will embrace a new prison at Magilligan Point, County Derry, the picturesque and potential tourist location on the north-east coast. Locking up dissenters, Irish or English, has always been a weapon of the British establishment.   
The Mayor of Limavady, a stalwart of British unionism, proclaimed the announcement of the new prison at Magilligan as “good news” for the law-abiding people. He wasn’t quoting from the Bible or proclaiming Christmas but about a place expected to cost a cool £200 million. The major cheerleader of the venture is Gregory Campbell of the DUP. 
Magilligan will be part of an overall plan by the British Government to build a number of ‘super prisons’ in England and Wales to accommodate an increase in the current prison population of 81,000 to a predicted 100,000,  the highest number of offenders in any prison system throughout the whole of Europe.
Against the advice of the Howard League for Penal Reform and widespread condemnation from a number of bodies, including experienced prison officers, the British Government is to press ahead with what has been described as “warehouses for human beings on green belt land”.
The ‘super prisons’, modelled on those built in the USA and South Africa, are expected to hold 2,500 prisoners. The majority of those currently in prison are largely drawn from the unemployed in working-class communities or are imprisoned because of drug or alcohol addiction. Some 2,500 are between the ages of 15 and 17 years old. There is a deafening silence – akin to the silence built around the infamous H-Blocks  – surrounding those Muslim political prisoners currently incarcerated and whether the plans include accommodation in the super prisons for the possible introduction of internment for  those  labelled ‘terrorists’.
The current prison at Magilligan was built in 1972 as an internment camp and those imprisoned tended to be drawn from as far away as Belfast, a situation that imposed great hardship on relatives who had to travel to a place in the back hole of nowhere. The situation has not changed since then. The prison currently employs 400 prison officers who, almost without exception, ‘kick with the right foot’.
Ireland as a nation has historically been remarkably ‘crime free’ but as events post-Civil Rights era showed, those captured in the struggle to liberate the North became the political prisoners of a vast and  lucrative prison industry which, post-cessation, are still clinging to ‘the good life’.
We do not need another prison and the £200 million should be used to address the mental and physical ill health of the political prisoners and those the Screws referred to as ‘ordinary decent criminals’ who went through the doors of the infamous Magilligan Prison.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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