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27 March 1997 Edition

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Daring escape bid

Reports from jail of collective punishment



WITHIN DAYS OF A TUNNEL being discovered in the republican H Block 7 at Long Kesh reports from the jail indicate that prisoners are being treated in a heavy handed manner by the prison administration. Visits and telephone contact have been cut while Belfast man Eugene McKee was injured during a search in H5.

Home leave and compassionate parole for all prisoners has been suspended and already Tyrone man Martin Bullock, whose brother died on Tuesday, has been refused leave to attend the funeral.

According to reports coming out of the jail one republican POW has been injured and another 12 removed to the punishment block from H5 after trouble erupted during a search.

A spokesperson for Sinn Fein's POW Department said the H5 incident occurred on Tuesday 25 March, hours after representatives of the prisoners and the jail adminstration thrashed out an agreement aimed at stabilising the situation in the jail. However a search squad arrived in the block to carry out a search and ignored the agreement arrived at. When they tried to forcibly search prisoners, McKee was injured.

Sinn Féin's North Belfast election candidate, Gerry Kelly said he ``received reports that all prisoners from H7 have been strip searched, handcuffed and moved by a riot squad from H7 to another block''.

However the extent to which a heavy-handed regime is being implemented has been difficult to verify as the prison authorities have cancelled visits between the POWs and their families and cut all telephone contact. An Phoblacht has also been told that the prisoners are to mount legal challenges to the decision to collectively punish them by stopping the parole and the visits.

Staff at the POW department said they are very concerned that both unionist politicians and spokespersons for the jails warders are hyping the situation in an attempt to have a punitive regime put in place.

``This situation is reminiscent of what happened after the mass escape in 1983,'' the spokesperson said. ``The Prison Officers Association (POA) attempted to take control of the jail and force both the jail authorities and the prison service at the NIO to impose a strict regime with controlled movement, closed visits and 23 hour lock ups. Both the NIO and jail governors were content to comply with this, but the regime was resisted by republican prisoners. It didn't work but we shouldn't discount the fact that the POA has always run with a loyalist agenda with very heavy anti-Republican overtones''.

News that Republican prisoners were organising a second mass breakout from the H Blocks emerged last Sunday evening when the NIO disclosed that a tunnel had been discovered running from H7, where 95 POWs were being held, to the perimeter wall. The tunnel which was said to be over 40 feet long, is thought to have been found after a section of it collapsed.

It was an elaborate affair with electric lighting and shored up with bed ends. Over ten tonnes of soil and rubble had been removed from the tunnel.

The news of the discovery led to a predictable response from loyalist politicians and POA spokespeople, with Ian Paisley saying, ``security in the jail was at an all-time low'' and that ``the IRA, not prison officers'' were in control of the jail.

Finlay Spratt of the POA echoed the DUP view, saying, ``no one should be surprised ... prison officers have been saying that we have no control within the living accommodation of the H Blocks''. These remarks are being seen as an attempt by the POA to assert itself.

Direct Ruler Patrick Mayhew has ordered an inquiry into the escape attempt. The internal inquiry is to be carried out by John Steele who is Director of Policing and Security at the NIO but was formerly the NIO's Director of Prisons.
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