Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A fine line between punishment and abuse.

The treatment of prisoners is an issue that concerns me as I see it to be a situation that all too often falls under the radar, with the exception of the efforts of some prison campaign and human rights groups. In fairness there are politicians north and south of Ireland pro-actively working on this issue whilst others continue work only on a reactionary basis as opposed to  addressing these outstanding issues in line with Human Rights Legislation and their party policies.

A few years ago I was actively involved in a prison campaign, the campaign was real eye opener for me on a number of levels, primarily to the realisation that draconian punitive practices of the past continue today. These practices are designed to brutalise and humiliate as opposed to rehabilitate, such methods have been criticised by many yet continue under the guise of legality and security. These practices include degrading strip searches which could easily be replaced by body scanners similar to those used at airports, lengthy lock-up which in some cases can amount to 23 hours per day, forced isolation which many consider a form of torture and the ongoing denial of adequate medical treatment.

Just today I learned through the media of how a young man from Derry suffering from  mental health issues gouged out his eyes and has blinded himself, cut his wrists and also mutilated his testicles whilst supposedly under the supervision of medical staff in Maghaberry prison. Concerns over this man's mental wellbeing had been raised by both police doctors and prison medical staff yet it is clear this man was not given the medical attention he so desperately needed.

Many people would happily turn a blind eye to the plight of prisoners, yet many are incarcerated due in part to their circumstances.  Roger Houchin a former governor of Barlinnie prison in Glasgow carried out a study which found that a significant proportion of prisoners came from some of the most deprived communities. This is not to be dismissive of the reasons why some people end up in prison or the impact of their crimes upon their victims. It is a simple fact that a prison sentence does not negate a prisoner's human rights, including the right to adequate medical attention. This right is protected under article three of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment.

In the case of Colin Bell a life sentence prisoner who completed suicide in Maghaberry in 2008, the prison ombudsman Pauline McCabe made 44 recommendations.  One of these recommendations was that Prison staff were to be made aware of the policies relating to observation cells and self-harm and suicide prevention. You would assume that knowledge of these policies would be paramount in terms of staff carrying out their duties, clearly not.

In 2009 Prison inspectors Dame Anne Owers and Dr Michael McGuire said “Maghaberry Prison was so bad the safety of inmates was at risk.” They also claimed that Maghaberry was one of the most “expensive prisons” to run yet one of the “worst in the UK.” These claims were made following a random visit to the prison just six months after a man hanged himself whilst under supervision in a specialist unit. At that time it was suggested that the prison failed “to meet standards in all four of the internationally recognised tests for prisoner welfare.”

Dr McGuire also voiced disappointment at the failure to implement over 54% of the 155 recommendations made following the inspection of the prison in 2006. The concerns raised by Dr McGuire included the following:

There was no local suicide or self-harm policy for the prison

There was little therapeutic support for some very vulnerable men

Poor monitoring procedures were in place for those at risk

In October 2013 in a statement relating to the implementation of a Drugs and Rehab Unit in Maghaberry Prison  the Stormont Justice Minister David Ford stated that 9 out of the 40 recommendations outlined in the 2011 Owers report had been implemented. 

It doesn't take a maths genius to work out that 31 of the recommendations have yet to be addressed, we should be asking why not? We also need to question whether or not the 54% of recommendations made during the 2006 inspection into Maghaberry prison have been implemented, not forgetting the 44 recommendations from the Prison Ombudsman. Questions must be asked when a vulnerable prisoner alleged to be under medical supervision has the scope to inflict extensive physical harm upon himself .

In the recent case of Solicitor Damien Murray the Judge, Mr Justice Weir suspended his sentence on the following basis... ”In the light of Murray's current psychological and mental health state, he did not believe that he would receive the appropriate medical treatment if he sent him to Maghaberry Prison.” So clearly this deficiency is publicly acknowledged within the justice circles yet the many vulnerable people who don't have their sentence suspended are placed in an environment which is detrimental to their physical and mental wellbeing.

Prisoners are entitled to receive the care they would receive in the community anything less demonstrates a systematic failure and unacceptable level of neglect by the justice system.

We must also acknowledge the role of the Northern Ireland Executive in this matter as the running of prisons falls within the remit of the Stormont Justice Department.

By failing to implement regulatory recommendations the Stormont Justice Department is clearly not doing it's job, central to which is their duty of care in ensuring that the wellbeing and rights of vulnerable prisoners are upheld and respected. 


Thursday, 12 June 2014

Save our Schools!

Just days after the European elections it was announced here in Derry that the Immaculate Conception College which is the only Catholic Post-Primary School in the Waterside area of city is to close by August 2015. Parents and children learned of the final decision to close the school through the media with the children later given an explanation by school staff. The timing of this announcement was politically convenient with the Local and European elections just at a close. The school is being closed on the basis of declining numbers, with numbers plummeting when the school was first earmarked for closure in 2010. Who is going to enrol their child in a school earmarked for closure?

This school is at the heart of an economically deprived community, this closure will not only see the demise of the local Post-Primary School but that of valuable community services such as the local Youth Club and Pre-School Nursery. This transition will also mean many children having to travel by bus or car to the West-Bank of the city or Rural areas to avail of a school place. Whilst this isn't a huge distance it does require transport which for some parents is an inconvenience they can little afford. This decision is said to be reminiscent of the situation here in the sixties when children from the West-bank of the city were forced to travel to the to the Immaculate Conception College (formerly St Brecans) to avail of a post-primary education due to a lack of provision.

In an ideal world I support integrated education but equally I support the rights of parents choosing an education for their children in line with their religious faith. Sadly in this city many of the Integrated and Catholic schools are already over subscribed giving children now seeking a new school place limited choice. I spoke to a parent this morning who has been told by the first two schools she contacted that her child will not get a place in their school due to over-subscription.

Ultimately we are a growing population with limited school places. Over the past six years we have witnessed the closure of over 100 schools here in the North of Ireland. These ill thought out decisions are little more than a short-term fix creating long-term problems. Not to mention the Private Finance Initiatives and the debt we now have for generations to come.

Where does this end?

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Dead Fish & Detritus

I arrived home yesterday evening following my youngest son's First Communion celebrations anxious to put a few photographs on facebook when I read a status stating that another young child would be arriving home in the middle of a police raid on his/her home in the Creggan area of the city. 

As I looked at the joy in my child my heart sank at the prospect of a traumatic end to a special day for the other child. Whilst it can be argued that a police force has a job to do and searching homes could be considered a facet of that role, how they conduct themselves in the exercise of their duties is something that should be open to scrutiny, and this is something that has been brought into question about the conduct of Police forces in many countries.

Here in the North of Ireland when scrutinising the actions of the PSNI the questioning of their conduct should be free from political justification, especially when these actions impact on young innocent children.

Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that a “child has the right to be protected from being hurt or mistreated in body and mind” yet it would appear the police in their activities are dismissive of this right.

These house raids are being carried out by a section of the PSNI known as Tactical Support Groups, these TSG's are accountable only to the chief constable and by-pass the oversight of local policing partnerships and the Policing Board. Whilst these raids are being carried out under so called anti-terrorism legislation technically the Police are raiding the homes of innocent people as in the eyes of the law a person is innocent until proven guilty. That's unless I missed something along the way?

Just this morning I read the following statement from MLA Pat Ramsey........

“I have been contacted regarding house searches by police both yesterday and tonight, I will be collating a report to the Police Ombudsman about both due to the impact on children, and would be keen to speak to both families involved if anyone can put me in contact with them via PM.”

Whilst I believe Pat Ramsey's intentions are genuine, in reality it is highly unlikely that the Police will co-operate with either Pat or the Northern Ireland Ombudsman on this matter. The Northern Ireland Ombudsman is currently in the process of taking the Chief Constable to court over the PSNI's refusal to fully co-operate with his office in over 60 murder investigations. This comes just over one year after the discovery that murders involving British State forces were being treated less rigorously than other cases examined by the Historical Enquiries Team.

In the case of the 1988 Good Samaritan bombing in Creggan, Derry, the Police Ombudsman said he found no evidence that innocent civilians were put at risk to protect a police informer. This claim is in direct conflict with the assertions made by the Retired RUC Officers Association whose members refused to co-operate with the ombudsman's investigation yet later alleged that a police informer had been protected. A daughter of one of the victims of the Good Samaritan Bombing said: “It beggars belief that retired police officers wouldn’t cooperate in a PONI investigation but, then, come along afterwards and seek to undermine the report and make claims about informer protection which the Ombudsman had been unable to confirm.”

There is clearly no way of checking the veracity of the information given by the police in particular when it involves the police investigating the police.

Questions to be asked:

Is there accountability in policing, if so who polices the Police?

Is there a Dark-side on the Bright-side of policing with the bright side being the policing you see? Or is there only a dark side of the force when it affects a certain political party or it's supporters?

Are the Tactical support groups a force within a force?

When people ask questions or raise concerns such as these there are some who dismiss genuine concerns and attempt to brand those asking as anti-peace process which for my own part could not be further from the truth, granted I do have grave concerns over what appears to be an endless process but I have always supported the need for true peace.

I have never condoned the use of violence and never will whether it be at the hands of paramilitaries or the state. I voted for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 believing things would change for the better, something in hindsight I would question given the ongoing use of draconian practices, practices such as lengthy remand tantamount to internment, secret courts, the continued use of the Diplock non-jury court and the increased use closed evidence covered by the use of the national security card. These practices still exist despite the promises of the Good Friday Agreement when we were promised an era in which “justice would be done and be seen to be done" and “measures compatible with a normal and peaceful society.”

It would appear that the system in the North of Ireland remains inherently unjust and as ever mounted in favour of the interests of the British State. The ongoing ambiguity surrounding many agreements and side deals made between the parties and the British Government which include everything from the On the Runs to the level of control given to the British Secret Services at Weston Park are slowly but surely beginning to bubble to the surface as the truth outs. Although some still deny all knowledge of these deals.

I think it's time for our politicians to cease with trying to fool us into thinking things are dandy when the cracks are becoming more visible by the day.

In a recent televised interview Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he would die to protect the peace process. Imagine that! Martin will give his life for the peace process, this is something which is laughable when you consider both he and Peter Robinson have resisted providing information requested of their office under Freedom of Information Legislation because it might lose them votes!

This would suggest Robinson & McGuinness have reservations over their own departmental practices. Maybe someone should take time to point out that openness, honesty and transparency are key ingredients in the establishment of true peace. No one wants anyone to die for anything, but don't feed us sound bites of self proclaiming martyrdom, we're not as stupid as you look.

If we are honest the only process at work here in the north is the process of normalisation with the great and the good persisting with the utterly impracticable task of trying to normalise an abnormal situation. We are working on the basis of an agreement that promised different things to different people an agreement with many of the promises yet to be fulfilled. The sheep and those who go with the flow would do well to remember that bleating the party diatribe does not make for a coherent argument and that not only do dead fish and detritus go with the flow, but dead fish also rot from the head down.

In all honesty the process was flawed from the outset and unfortunately at this point the best we can do is to hold to account the accountable and demand they do something to make the unaccountable more accountable.

What's really sad is that if the North of Ireland was Craggy Island and the politics here the Catholic Church then the sitcom Father Ted would be the most apt way of describing this ongoing farce!