21 August 1997 Edition

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Prisoners moved out of SSUs

By Fern Lane

Thirteen republican POWs, including remand prisoners, who have up until now been held in the `concrete coffins' of Special Secure Units in three prisons in England, have had their security classification downgraded from Exceptional High Risk Category A, to High Risk Category A after a ``security review'' by the Home Office announced late on Monday evening.

As a result, the prisoners have been moved out of the SSUs in Whitemoor and Full Sutton prisons, where they were denied proper visiting rights, adequate healthcare, access to natural daylight or exercise and education facilities, and into the main wings of their respective prisons, although it is likely that they will be moved again on to other prisons. In Belmarsh the prisoners, who are on remand, will remain in the SSU but their regime has been improved.

The decision will also mean an end to closed visits, with the associated degrading searches and intimidation to which prisoners and their families have been subjected. Prisoners were denied any physical contact whatsoever with their partners and children. The refusal of many of the prisoners to subject their families to the ordeal involved in visiting has meant that some of them have not seen their loved ones for anything up to two years.

This development could be interpreted as a confidence-building measure, taken in response to the recent Sinn Féin delegation which visited the prisoners and condemned the continued use of SSUs, and ahead of the talks due to begin on 15 September.

Pressure has also been increasing on the British Government by the intervention of numerous human rights bodies who have also roundly condemned SSUs. In March Amnesty International published a report on the appalling conditions within the units, declaring that they constitute ``cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment'', that Irish Republican prisoners are ``arbitrarily and punitively'' subjected to this particular form of imprisonment, and that the use of SSUs is in clear violation of ``Britain's obligations under international human rights treaties''.

Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghin O Caoláin described the decision as ``a step in the right direction''. The Cavan/Monaghan TD has only recently returned from England where he met the Irish republican prisoners, including the 13 whose category was changed this week. O Caoláin had earlier this week presented his party's arguments for movement on prisoners to British ministers, including Secretary of State Mo Mowlam. O Caoláin said:

``I sincerely hope that the preparatory work in advance of the repatriation of all Irish republican prisoners held in England is now moving on at an advanced pace. Sinn Féin will of course continue to argue for and urge both governments to release all those imprisoned as a direct consequence of the conflict.''

Michael Brown of Sinn Féin POW Department also welcomed the downgrading move, describing it as a ``positive development'' but ``the British Government should immediately transfer these 18 prisoners without delay. There needs to be movement, not an impression of movement.''

He further stressed that there is little left to discuss on the immediate transfer of POWs, and that British and European legislation dictates that prisoners should be housed as close as possible to their families. ``This issue is one of political will, and if this exists then Irish political prisoners will be transferred. The British government can demonstrate its good faith by ensuring the immediate transfer of all Irish political prisoners from England pending their early release.''

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