27 February 1997 Edition

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Screws disrupt visits

Family and friends of POW Hugh Doherty have endured 22 years trekking back and forth to visit him in English prisons. During this time numerous unannounced moves from one prison to another have forced elderly parents to hunt the length and breadth of Britain for their son. It took six months for his niece to get permission to visit him, and his brother was barred for 20 years. Four-month old babies have been searched.

Last week, harassment of one of Hugh Doherty's visitors left the woman devastated. Una, from West Donegal, does not want to give her full name lest this brings harassment on her family. She has visited Hugh for the past 22 years, managing a visit every 12-18 months. These visits are carefully planned in advance, with Hugh saving up visits. She looked forward, on arrival at Whitemoor Prison last Thursday to 3 days of accumulated visits.

She describes what happened: ``It was a year since I had seen Hugh, and I was to have 5 visits beginning on Thursday 20 February.

``All this had been prearranged 5 weeks before. There is no way the prison authorities didn't know about these visits.

``When I arrived for my 9:30 visit, I was told there would be a delay as the prison staff were having a meeting. At 10:30 I was told there would be a further delay, and at 10:45 I was told to come back in the afternoon and I would get my visit. This was as if I was a local and hadn't travelled for hundreds of miles for a series of visits specially saved up. The weather was so bad that the plane was cancelled,so it was a 5 hour drive to Dublin and then that plane was delayed by the weather also.

``I told them that I already had a visit that afternoon. They claimed Hugh knew nothing about this. This is nonsense, since these visits must be booked and then confirmed. Eventually I saw Hugh for just half an hour that morning.

``When I saw Hugh that afternoon, he told me that his cell had been ransacked during our first visit. He had to mouth this information as one screw sat with Hugh and one with me. On the fourth visit, we were put in a very large room with surveillance cameras everywhere. A screw sat 3 feet from us and could hear every word.

``On the last visit, Hugh was told it would be a closed visit. This means a sheet of thick glass right up to the ceiling, is between us. To speak you have to put your mouth right up to a speaking grill. It's hard to hear and you end up shouting. It's very tense, made worse because a screw was standing only a foot behind me the whole time.

``When Hugh came out, he was clearly angry. He told me they tried to search his mouth. When he refused he was told he would be charged - this always means solitary confinement.

``This whole experience shattered me. Needless to say, these weren't relaxed visits Normally we exchange snippets of news and jokes, keep the spirits up with a bit of craic. This just wasn't possible. Now I have to go back to my work in Donegal with a smile, and pretend I've had a wonderful weekend in London.

``Things are steadily getting worse in England for the POWs. And not for the POWs - it's the families whose suffering really gets to me. Hugh has a life sentence - but his family, especially his elderly mother, serve a sentence as well.

``These visits are getting like the visits we had in the mid-70s. It eased up for a while but since the ceasefire announcement in 94, conditions have steadily deteriorated.''

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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