Although reports that screws are beating prisoners should generate no more surprise than reports of rain in Manchester, the phenomenon retains all its power to infuriate many ex-prisoners, who know its effects all too well. When I heard that the republican prisoner Martin Kelly had among his injuries the heel mark of a prison staff boot, I did not for a second believe that he had sustained it trying to viciously head butt the sole of some screw’s footwear.
The facts of prison life are blunt. Prison staff violence has routinely happened and the prison management has as routinely dissembled to cover it up. Sue McAllister, Director General of the Prison Service, may well claim of Maghaberry that there were “no injuries to staff or prisoners", but there is no reason whatsoever on this earth to believe her. Her utterance is so symptomatic of the contempt that prisoners with injuries are held in by the Maghaberry administration. Justice Weir scathingly outlined that much for us.
Justice micro minister David Ford is not stupid, even if he puts in an Oscar winning performance acting as if he is. In denying prison staff violence he may as well claim he knows of no pubs that sell alcohol, not a single, solitary one. Society would not permit it. Publicans only run these places to spread a Christian message, promote the spirit not spirits.
Even when prison staff violence is indisputable the authorities will still dispute it. On the 25th of September 1983 numerous prisoners were brutalised by prison staff after the major escape by republican prisoners. Compensation was paid out. Not a screw ever appeared in court as a result of it. During the blanket protest, prisoners were assaulted on a daily basis. Not one conviction as a result.
Institutional abuse in prisons is not viewed by officialdom as it is in other institutions. Many from the clerical and teaching professions have been sent down for inflicting abuse but rarely a screw. I don’t recall one conviction in the North for violent abuse inflicted by prison staff. Yet there has been more abuse in prisons than in other more open institutions. Society is wasting its time talking about historical abuse inquiries if it pretends that the violence perpetrated in jails does not qualify as abuse.
In Edinburgh about eight years ago I attended a conference on alternatives to prison. The event went on over two days yet of all the problems being referenced prison staff violence was not amongst them. I raised the issue. In response a former governor of a Scottish prison very bluntly stated that a prisoner once told him that the difference between himself and the governor was that ‘your gang is bigger than mine.’ It was an acknowledgement of the mindset so pervasive among prison staff.
Despite the ostensible and voluble concern about abuse there have been no police convicted for torture, nor screws for brutality. In Althusserian terms these institutions represent the hard power of the repressive state apparatuses, the coercion that always lies beneath and interacts with the soft power of the other entities deemed ideological state apparatuses. Abuse by staff is known about but not policed because such abuse is itself a policing of the prison population. It may no longer be as endemic but it is certainly systemic: known about in a fashion that lends itself to plausible deniability.
The history of institutional abuse that has existed in the prisons is an unofficial one. Society needs to upgrade that status to official and acknowledge the virulent malaise that it has placed out of sight and out of mind.