Northern Ireland: "I am sir, you are a number": Prisoners faced "systemic inhuman and degrading treatment" in response to 1970s protests, report finds

Prisoners held in the Armagh and H-Block prisons between 1976 and 1981 were subjected to "systemic inhuman and degrading treatment" that "violated international human rights standards and breached common law and statute", with the full knowledge of the British government, an independent inquiry has found.


H-Block prisoners subjected to 'systemic inhuman and degrading treatment' during the Troubles, report finds (The Journal, link):

"A SIGNIFICANT NEW report released today has concluded that protesting prisoners in the H-Blocks and HMP Armagh were subjected to systemic inhuman and degrading treatment.

The study by the Independent Panel of Inquiry into the conditions at the prisons between 1976 to 1981 is the first review of the experiences of men and women prisoners held at the prisons following the withdrawal of Special Category Status on 1st March 1976.

This status had effectively made inmates prisoners of war and they were allowed certain concessions, including the wearing of their own clothes. They also did not have to do prison work and were allowed additional visits by family and access to more food parcels.

The report identified forty-seven findings which the independent group says reflect the abuses of power endured by the men and women held in the H-Blocks and Armagh, and the long term impact on the lives of former prisoners and their families."

Full report: 'I am Sir, You Are a Number': Report of the independent inquiry into the H-Block and Armagh prison protests 1976-1981 (pdf)

Professor Phil Scraton, author of the report, said:

"From the transcripts of in-depth interviews with men and women former prisoners presented in this Report, it is evident they endured unacceptable levels of physical and psychological punishment, violence and violation. Administered purposefully, without the checks and balances of State institutional accountability, it constituted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment within the UN General Assembly’s 1975 definition of torture."

Introductory text of the report copied below.

The launch of the report was marked by an event last week, with a panel made up of Professor Phil Scraton, Síle Darragh, Séanna Walsh, Pádraig Ó Muirigh and Dr. John Burton.

 

From the report (pdf):

INTRODUCTION

COMPOSITION OF THE PANEL

The Independent Panel was established jointly by Coiste na nIarchimí and Ó Muirigh Solicitors. It was chaired by the late Warren Allmand, former Solicitor-General for Canada; alongside Richard Harvey, Barrister-at-Law, Garden Court Chambers, London; and Dr John Burton, retired family doctor and researcher in Human Rights Law. Access to prisoners’ files, preparation of prisoners’ testimonies, legislative research and access to Government documents were administered by Ó Muirigh Solicitors

BACKGROUND

On 30th July 1978, Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, Primate of all Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh, visited Republican prisoners held in Long Kesh/ HMP The Maze. His visit was at the height of prisoners’ protests demanding British State recognition of their political status in the context of persistent violation of their rights and systemic assaults by prison guards. He was shocked by what he witnessed, stating:

The authorities refuse to admit that these prisoners are in a different category from the ordinary [prisoner], yet everything about their trials and family background indicates that they are different. They were sentenced by special courts without juries. The vast majority were convicted on allegedly voluntary confessions obtained in circumstances which are now placed under grave suspicion by the recent report of Amnesty International. Many are very youthful and come from families which had never been in trouble with the law, though they lived in areas which suffered discrimination in housing and jobs. How can one explain the jump in the prison population of Northern Ireland from five hundred to three thousand unless a new type of prisoner has emerged?

The gravity of suffering endured by male prisoners held in Long Kesh/ HMP The Maze and by women prisoners held in HMP Armagh, and its impact on their families, has persisted to this day. It has resulted in this long-overdue inquiry, established in

"The authorities refuse to admit that these prisoners are in a different category from the ordinary [prisoner], yet everything about their trials and family background indicates that they are different. They were sentenced by special courts without juries. The vast majority were convicted on allegedly voluntary confessions obtained in circumstances which are now placed under grave suspicion by the recent report of Amnesty International. Many are very youthful and come from families which had never been in trouble with the law, though they lived in areas which suffered discrimination in housing and jobs. How can one explain the jump in the prison population of Northern Ireland from five hundred to three thousand unless a new type of prisoner has emerged?"

The gravity of suffering endured by male prisoners held in Long Kesh/ HMP The Maze and by women prisoners held in HMP Armagh, and its impact on their families, has persisted to this day. It has resulted in this long-overdue inquiry, established in response to families’ requests to chronicle prisoners’ experiences in jail. Participants seek neither redress nor compensation. For survivors and those who have since died, for their families and communities, and in the public interest, the work of the Panel records the institutional abuse of State power and authority. It is intended that the personal testimonies and Panel’s findings will contribute significantly to the historical record of the Conflict.

Four decades on from the Blanket Protest there is wider relevance in documenting the context and consequences of prisoners’ protest. It is to reveal the privations of prison conditions, their operational regimes and the politics of incarceration. In construction and function, prisons are hidden from view, their operations lacking public scrutiny or accountability. This Report contributes to that open scrutiny.

As Nelson Mandela stated, ‘No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails’. For they are closed worlds of isolation, control and arbitrary punishment, ‘designed to break one’s spirit and destroy one’s resolve’. The ‘challenge for every prisoner’, he continued, is ‘how to survive prison intact, how to emerge from a prison undiminished’ given that prison regimes are designed to ‘exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality – all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes each of us human and each of us who we are’.

Focusing on conflict in Ireland, particularly in the North, numerous biographical accounts, authoritative books, academic research papers and theses have been written and broadcast. However, it is appropriate to recognise the contribution nationally and internationally of former prisoner, writer, playwright and film-maker, Laurence McKeown.

Additional to this Report, an open, public archive will be made available generated by the interviews conducted by the Panel. It will be of value to researchers, informing future generations that prisoners, whatever their status, are entitled to the safeguards of international human rights standards and that prisoners of conflict require special protections from oppressive prison policies and conditions.

 

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