Cogus raises a range of problems experienced by republican prisoners in Portlaoise. Cogus describes itself as a prisoner welfare and support group that highlights injustices suffered by Irish POWs.
Republican prisoners in Portlaoise prison (E block) are protesting about the deteriorating conditions that have been unfolding in the E block for some considerable time. The main focus of the protest is to highlight the conditions and the medical facilities (which are non existent) in the prison.
The E block which consists of 4 landings houses 30 political prisoners aligned to various republican groups. The unhygienic conditions and the lack of medical backup within the block are the main concern for the prisoners and their families, and many are fearful that the deplorable conditions may result in a fatality.
In a recent newspaper article believed to have been leaked by the prison authorities the Star newspaper (17-9-2015) reports some misleading and grossly bias information surrounding the conditions in the E block. The newspaper article reports detail about a dinner menu (a fictitious one at that) which could easily have been taken from a 5 star hotel menu, a far cry from the actual menu in E block. Indeed anyone with a degree of fairness and understanding would realise that the comment was completely inaccurate and without foundation. The Star article also makes reference to a protest over Gluten free food which is also mischievous and factually incorrect. The issue of Gluten free food is confined to one prisoner with a health issue; no other prisoner had an issue with Gluten free food.
As a result of the misleading and inaccurate reporting the prisoners have compiled a report revealing the awful conditions in the E block. The information has been sent to a number of TD’s, various human rights groups and the International Red Cross. The prisoners in E block also request any of those bodies to come to the prison and witness for themselves the deplorable conditions there. The detailed information on the conditions is also being sent to sections of the media including the Star newspaper and ask that the details supplied will receive the same prominence as the inaccurate Star article of 17th September 2015.
The report reveals that the raw sewerage running down the pipes within the building is close to where the men are housed. The report will reveal the filth and general unhealthy conditions throughout some areas of the E block. The unhealthy conditions have been exacerbated with the cutbacks to the cleaning materials which are provided to the prisoners for the purposes of cleaning the landings and the cells. The cutbacks include a scarcity of disinfectant, toilet bleach, mops for cleaning; even the toilet paper has become scarce on occasions. The shower areas have also become a major health hazard with water leaking from the ceilings when the showers above are in use.
The prison administration who agree that the conditions are in a bad state say that their hands are tied on the issue. They say that the cutbacks have been imposed on them by the Irish Prison Service (IPS) and they concede that the situation may deteriorate even further in the months ahead. At this point the situation in E block is in crisis and the prisoners have been forced to embark on a protest as there is no other option available to highlight their plight.
The food distribution area is another major health hazard with the ceilings corroding and flakes continuously falling in the area. The poor quality and quantity of the food has been ongoing for some time and many prisoners have their food subsidised by their families who leave money to help offset the problem. The prisoners are further penalised with the inflated priced imposed by the prison shop which in itself needs examination by the consumer council. Whenever the prisoners complain of the inflated shop prices, they are threatened with the withdrawal of the shop facility altogether.
The E block building is about 120 years old and consists of 4 landings. The daily routine within the block is that prisoners are locked down from 8.00pm until 8.15am the following morning. First thing each morning the prisoner must slop out as none of the cells throughout the landings have in-cell sanitation. This practice has been condemned internationally by all human rights groups including the UN human rights commission. For many years the slop out issue is described as a form of torture and inhumane and degrading punishment by all international human rights groups.
Adding to the problems, the medical back up in the E block is almost non existent with no doctor available for weeks at a time. The regular doctor has not been available since March 2015. A stand-in doctor visits occasionally but never on a regular basis. Whenever a stand-in doctor becomes available he/she is always a locum doctor who is unfamiliar with the prisoner’s complaint and medical history. The files/records are never updated which also complicates the problem for both the doctor and the ill prisoner. If a prisoner takes ill and needs hospital treatment it takes up to 4 hours to have him transferred to the nearby Portlaoise hospital which is 5 minutes drive from the prison. The delay for the hospital transfer is due to the security (Gardai and Army) which is in place to accompany the prisoner to the nearby hospital under armed guard.
Many of the cells throughout the E block are uninhabitable due to dampness with many of the uninhabited cells taken over by pigeons; the pigeons enter the cells due to the broken windows. On several occasions this problem has been brought to the attention of the prison management but the matter has never been addressed and is an added health hazard. Through all the problems which exist throughout the E block few will disagree that the most dangerous being the open sewerage running down the pipes between the landings. This problem has been ongoing for some considerable time and although it has been highlighted to the prison administration they have not addressed it to date. However recently they have indicated that they will have it addressed in the near future, a story told so many times. Recently the prisoners’ spokespersons have alerted the prison management that they intend to highlight this issue in particular as it is morally wrong and unjustifiable to continue to have men living in such conditions.
The inexcusable conditions which the prisoners have had to endure for the past number of years are an indictment not only on the Dublin Government but also on the political parties who choose to ignore the unacceptable conditions in Portlaoise prison. Interestingly their plight is also widely ignored by the various Irish human rights groups including many within the Irish legal profession who profess to be human rights lawyers. Many of those so called human rights lawyers represented some of the prisoners in Dublin’s non-jury Special Criminal Court.
The prisoners are calling for anyone with an interest in human rights to highlight this issue wherever and whenever they can. They are also calling on people to write to the international Red Cross requesting them to visit the E block and witness the deplorable conditions there. Only then will people realise that the sanitised article deliberately leaked to the media by the prison administration is a deflection, is mischievous and a totally inaccurate version of the conditions in E block.