An Open Letter from Christine Connor regarding her two year detention in Hydebank Women's Prison.
My name is Christine Connor and on the 29th of May 2013 I was arrested and subsequently taken to Antrim Serious Crime Suite where I was detained for a period of seven days before being formally charged and remanded to Hydebank Womens' Gaol.
In that Gaol situated in South Belfast I was held for in excess of two years whilst awaiting trial on a number of charges; In June 2015 I was granted bail on the basis of a considerable delay in proceeding to the next stage of the case.
During my time in Hydebank I was openly and fully supported by prisoners' welfare group Cogús and further to this by my male counterparts in Roe 3 Maghaberry and E2 Portlaoise with regular cards and letters.
The structure for female POWs in Hydebank differs to that of the aforementioned male establishments largely due to the fact that historically there have perpetually been fewer political prisoners from the female pool and as a direct consequence female Republican POWs were then and remain to be in todays' times less catered for in terms of adequate facilities.
Hydebank's Republican wing offers little by way of spacious accommodation and was initially designed to house two prisoners but a renovation of a 'store room' in late 2013 now enables the state to intern by remand up to four Irish women but what of the women who may fall prey of Britain's agenda at an unspecified time; Where will we house them?
'Doubling-Up' whilst in theory opposed by Republicans is an option that has had to be utilised in Maghaberry in the past due to a lack of cells but this is not a feasible option in Hydebank.
There isn't a communal visiting area for female POWs and as such when one is on a visit, no other Republican prisoner in Hydebank can avail of a visit irrespective of it being a legal or a domestic; This lack of access to the most paramount essentials to a prisoner most certainly rules out any future 'doubling-up' arrangements for our women.
The administration in Hydebank deem that nine visits a week should be shared between however many women are incarcerated at the behest of the British and this is inclusive of consultations with legal representatives. This in essence equates to a stark contrast with the visiting rights of all remand prisoners Republican or otherwise across the North of Ireland; A prisoner on remand is entitled to two domestic visits weekly and additional legal visits.
A secondary albeit relative failing from Gaol authorities and their counterparts in the N.I.O is that facilities on and off the Republican landing are either scarce or non existent. There is no canteen and as such meals are eaten in the cells; There is no usable access to outside space; There is no education of any form facilitated for female Republicans in Hydebank and in the year of 2015 POWs remain unable to look out of or open a window because they are forced to endure out-dated surroundings unfit for purpose in the working hospital of a Gaol merely due to the dogmatic and equally incompetent decisions of those seemingly in power.
During my twenty-five months in Hydebank each day was a repetitive offering of the previous day and while I was not alone as I was in the company of IRPWA POW Sharon Rafferty, at times the silence was deafening.
The many cards and letters containing messages of support from people literally around the globe were indeed welcomed and appreciated but despite my best efforts to personally send my thanks to each and every person, my incoming and outgoing post was often delayed or with-held without my consent or knowledge; A state tactic to make isolated people feel all the more so.
On the 19th of March 2014 I was granted bail at the High court in Belfast, bail that I myself refused to accept. This was not a difficult decision as at the time I had been on remand for ten months and was in the mindset of 'I may as well get as much time done now before sentencing' firmly in the belief that this would go some way to creating a balance with time served and time still to do.
My thought pattern proved to be far removed from the reality of the situation that I was in when at Easter this year I was informed by my senior counsel that due to the punitive 'Joint Enterprise' legislation I was infact unlikely to receive '50-50' remission and would serve a life tariff if convicted of my main charge; Attempted murder of police.
Admittedly this was a shock but after a number of conversations with those close to me, I accepted that my battle was bigger than I had initially envisaged and set about ensuring that myself and my legal team were 'on the same page' and have for the last number of months been collectively engaged with the one mentality.
Gaol in itself isn't a hard task to complete; It's boring granted but it's the external problems that cause frustration for prisoners, the issues that become internal.
Arguing with the administration for the hundredth time knowing full well it's a futile exercise and all you're given is a meticulously timed smirk in response; Standing your ground when your cell has yet again been wrecked for no other reason than you're a Republican; Sniffer dogs being brought onto the wing so the 'House' governor and Gaol security can in their opinion show us who the boss is, all the while drugs are freely being abused on the wings of criminal elements; Having male prison officers go through your underwear drawer to make you feel degraded and violated.
While life in Hydebank is nothing like the draconian and intense conditions that women in Armagh had to contend with, it is simply a newer version of that.
Cleaner? Yes. Brighter? Yes. Easier on the eye? Yes absolutely but is it kinder on the mind or do the same tactics be perpetrated against Irish women? Of course the latter is the answer, just in a more discreet fashion and the sycophantic agents of the state have less female targets in their midst than they did during the height of my historic female comrades finding themselves 'behind the wire' of Armagh Gaol.
Two months ago I was granted bail and needless to say I decided it was necessary for me as a woman, a daughter, a comrade and more importantly a Republican of the 'new age' to accept that offer.
It wasn't without a genuine sense of worry however; I spent twenty four hours thinking it over. I spoke with my political representatives, my family and the friends whom I hold dear.
During all of my court appearances I have without apology refused to recognise the court; I remained silent in Antrim during the course of thirty nine interviews over a week long detention; In Hydebank I maintained a level of common decency with the screws but defended the Republican position at all times, not because I have any respect for prison officers but simply because I am naturally a polite person and do not see any benefit in shouting or cursing and therefore believe in the mantra of 'Polite and Firm' but never 'Friendly' or 'Abusive'.
In short I sat in a cell for over two years because I would not agree to the bail conditions but some agree to stand for the judge when asked to do so and yet there are people who are critical of me for wearing an electronic tag. Is there not an element of hypocrisy in this mentality?
For the most part people have never questioned my decision but recently there was an 'incident' that prompted me to consider the necessity of speaking out in relation to this matter.
I am thirty years old; I was raised as a Republican and there is nothing in my life that matters more than my principles but why should I be put in an impossible situation to maintain those beliefs if others genuinely believe the 'rules' are only applicable to us but not to themselves?
I may never have children if I have to serve a 'lifer's' term and that by its definition would likely be heart breaking for most women but I have embraced that possibility as another consequence of being a Republican political activist; It is what it is and many better people than myself have sacrificed far more than I will ever have to.
I am not Mairead Farrell; I am not Winnifred Carney; I am no one of that calibre, nor do I aspire to be.
I do not possess a desire for my name to be 'in lights', I am not concerned with 'making friends' or having 'praise' bestowed upon me and I do not want to be held in reverence.
I do not have any interest in trading a war of words with anyone, or engaging in elitist and ultimately detrimental outbursts or he said/she said nonsense.
Undoubtedly there will be people reading this and wondering why I have written an open letter in this manner; The fact is there are elements of my case that I can not discuss publicly and in actual fact elements that only a select few allies are aware of due to the possible chance of my defence being impeded at trial and as such I am advised not to converse about the specifics of the charges against me but because people have a tendency to 'be nosey' I respond to this with my own tendency of staying away from most.
This therefore leaves me open to ridicule because some take it to mean that I have distanced myself from activism, which is far from true and it has also resulted in people spreading what I can only describe as 'bollocks' about my case; No they didn't find explosives in my mattress etc etc.
I am out on bail facing six charges and as my bail conditions are restrictive I attend what I can when I can, providing of course it's not during my curfew hours or in an area that I am prohibited from entering.
I took the bail that was offered to me and since that day I have carefully 'kept my own counsel'; I have spent time with friends, with family and attempted to make the best of the time I have remaining in the 'outside' world.
However, I haven't forgotten about Hydebank or the POW I left behind and write to her every month.
I am interested in all POWs, regardless of their gender but unsurprisingly female POWs have earned a special place in my thoughts as I know what it's like to be where they are or where they have been- Our men and women are held by the same administration and punished by the same regime but the men have the comfort of 'strength in numbers'.
As Republican women we are very limited with whom we can seek advice and understanding from because while we have hundreds of ex and current male POWs, there are not the same number of ex or indeed current female POWs and certainly not from what some would refer to as the 'Dissident Era'.
It is therefore important to me to champion POWs of Hydebank as much as it is to highlight and assist the lads in Maghaberry and Portlaoise and I would sincerely implore all Republican-minded women to remember their female comrades
I have at times felt that there was a lack of communication between us the female prisoners and you the women on the outside and I hope that this is something that we can collectively address and rectify, as I am certain it was never intentional on anyone's part.
I don't want 'attention' and I am sure some people will accuse me of that for writing this.... I do want to open dialogue between women in the Republican movement because it is my assertion that stronger women can only serve as a benefit to said movement in general and women are of the most beneficial standing when they stand together.
To end I would like to take this opportunity to thank every person who has supported me to this point and assure you that your support never went by un-noticed.