Powderkeg Prison Ready to Explode
News Letter
Aug 18 2003

By Stephen Dempster

MAGHABERRY prison has been described as a powderkeg waiting to explode, by a senior warder at the jail.

The chairman of the Prison Officers' Association, Mark Lewis, has joined loyalists and republicans in warning jail bosses that the situation inside Maghaberry is extremely volatile.

But, while prisoners are more concerned with gaining segregation between rival paramilitary groups, prison guards are claiming that staffing levels are dangerously low.

Mr Lewis has said that, at times, staffing is down to one warder for 12 prisoners - half the preferred ratio.

With 25 years' experience as a prison officer, Mr Lewis claimed the situation at the jail was "critical".

He told a Sunday newspaper: "I have not seen a prison in such a disorganised state since I worked in the Maze.

"I would love to be able to say my employer is taking the situation seriously but that does not appear to be the case.

"There seems to be a perception that, if you ignore it, it will go away."

Mr Lewis said he had seen staffing as low as eight officers looking after 100 inmates.

He also said sickness levels among staff were high.

"We have been assaulted, intimidated and threatened with physical violence," he said.

"We are sick of it." Warders are under attack, as inmates and supporters outside the jail vent their frustrations with Maghaberry on prison staff.

A number of officers' homes have been attacked by pipebombers.

Inside Maghaberry, there have been a string of incidents.

As well as clashes between rival prisoners, there have been roof-top protests and a dirty protest by dissident republicans.

Prisoners claim conditions are overcrowded on some wings and loyalists and republicans are angry at being housed together.

Real IRA supporters have held rallies in west Belfast, while the UDA has blitzed Ulster streets with posters demanding segregation.

The Prison Service has responded by launching an inquiry, headed by former prisons' boss John Steele.

It is assessing the problems and talking to prisoners, as well as staff and prison chiefs.

Officials at Maghaberry have insisted they are monitoring problems and note that the Steele report will make recommendations.

They have also, however, said that segregation would not be a preferred option.

But among those housed in the same wing as republicans are prisoners such as UDA bosses William Mo Courtney and brothers Andre and Ihab Shoukri.


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