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Political Prisoners:
an overview

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Political Prisoners: an overview

One outcome of the Good Friday Agreement has been the release of prisoners affiliated to organisations that have established and maintained 'a complete and unequivocal ceasefire'. The intention is that all such prisoners will be released by June 2000.

The changing political context has implications for the prison population, especially in Northern Ireland, where the numbers behind bars were large, and where prison issues are highly political. Republican prisoners in particular resisted attempts by the State to criminalise them and fought for special category status as 'prisoners of war'. Their weapons of protest were non-compliance with prison rules, agitation and the hunger strike. The prison became central to their struggle.

paintingThe extent to which widespread incarceration has been a part of people's lives in some communities is hard to imagine. It is estimated that around 24,000 Irish men and women have been jailed at some stage in the past thirty years as a result of the Troubles. Some 600 have received life sentences. To give a specific example, the Upper Springfield area of West Belfast has a population of 11,500. More than ten per cent of the adults living there have experienced imprisonment as a direct result of the conflict. When families and friends are taken into account, few can have been unaffected.

The pains of imprisonment do not disappear as soon as individuals return to the community. The problems for political prisoners, Loyalist and Republican, after release are typical of those facing persons who have served long sentences and find resettlement difficult. While other ex-prisoners might seek support from State agencies such as the probation service, former paramilitaries have created their own support structures. A wide range of self-help groups has been established to assist them during the slow process of reintegration. There are particular concerns around:

  • Welfare benefits

  • Housing and accommodation (especially when relationships have broken down as a result of the prison sentence)

  • Employment and training (problems finding work with a criminal record)

  • Personal security

  • Psychological issues (depression, institutionalisation, inability to take responsibility)

  • Difficulty adjusting to new family context (grown up children, partner used to making all the decisions)

— Political Prisoners and Prison Accommodation

The accelerated release of politically motivated prisoners will create space in the prison systems, north and south. In June 1999, E Block in Portlaoise (which is reserved for 'subversive' prisoners) was operating at 31% of capacity (39 prisoners in 125 cells). It seems strange in this context that a new prison is being built across the road from it to accommodate 500 men. Surely it would make more sense to use existing prison spaces fully before adding new buildings? The plentiful staff resource in Portlaoise (five officers for every two prisoners) should now be available for redeployment. This will go some way towards reducing the enormous costs associated with keeping people in custody at this institution.

The infamous H Blocks at the Maze prison will soon be empty (in 1980 they held 1,400 republican and loyalist prisoners). It is unlikely that this complex will be suitable for continued use as a penal institution. Its closure will see the size of the prison estate in Northern Ireland shrink to a level more appropriate to a small jurisdiction with a low level of recorded crime.

The emergence of peace has led to a massive scaling down in the amount of high-security prison accommodation in Ireland. It has also led to the development of a range of innovative support services for ex-prisoners.


  Calypso Productions
South Great George's Street
Dublin 2, Ireland
phone (353 1) 6704539
fax (353 1) 6704275
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