As part of a series of articles and interviews IWOC Ireland talks with political prisoner John Paul Wootton, of the Craigavon Two. As an anarchist and political prisoner, John Paul talks here briefly on how prisoners campaign and fight back on the inside.
Can you tell us if you have been involved in any recent campaigns or actions on the inside and if so what have they been in relation to?
Over the past few years, a number of small campaigns have been fought to try and improve conditions for prisoners in the north of Ireland. Finally, after lengthy battles, we are starting to see some progress.
An important fight has been on the issue of cell raids. The seemingly limitless desire by prison guards, to go through all your personal belongings and violate your personal space means that cell raids are common feature of prison life.
How does the issue of cell raids impact on the lives of prisoners?
The discomfort and frustration they provoke is well-known to the state and, as such, they are often used as a weapon. Prisoner activists can often be met with the threat of a raid if they are perceived as being a ‘nuisance’: they are used to informally intimidate or punish.
Often the raids are accompanied by a wide ranging pettiness such as the confiscation of a second pillow or some extra water bottles, or even the ripping down of family photos from the wall of your cell.
Has the issue around cell raids not been dealt with before, particularly when we look at the wider prison struggles of the past?
Protections against this sort of thing have actually long existed. Many years of struggle in prisons and wider afield, secured rights in the past. Unfortunately, prisons in the North of Ireland have long lacked a real culture of oversight or scrutiny, with only Republican or Loyalist prisoner issues gaining any real focus. As such, prior gains have been lost.
The challenge then was to begin to pressure the prison administration to recognise these rights once again. Given the unfortunate lack of any real organisation among prisoners at the moment, and the sheer amount of work that is needed to rectify this, I made the decision to see what use could be made of the state bodies officially tasked with oversight.
Is there any use in taking legal action to challenge issues prisoners face?
The Prisoner Ombudsman’s Office, in my experience, has lacked any real credibility. It has long been denied any real power to create change by the state, and it tends to be staffed by people with pro-state and pro-prison ideology (the position of the Ombudsman is appointed by the Stormont Government of course). However, it was decided to pursue this avenue anyway, with the added contingency of legal action. A complaint was formally lodged citing lack of protections against arbitrary use of cell raids.
After 11 months, the Ombudsman produced a report that completely exonerated the prison and its policies. From the report, it was clear that the investigation lacked any real depth. In fact, they had not even deigned to speak to me or ask for submissions before completing it. As a consequence, I engaged a Human Rights Law firm for advice. The outcome was that the Ombudsman was told to recognise the rights of prisoners in this matter or face legal action.
The Ombudsman’s response was to deny any wrong-doing but to commit to re-run their investigation. This time, under the scrutiny of my legal team and I, a new report was produced that upheld my case and made a number of recommendations for change that was eventually accepted by the prison administration.
Does using the master's tools actually change anything?
I am under no illusions of course. The use of state bodies and legal avenues will not lead to fundamental change in prisons and certainly not their abolition. It is only organisation, direct action and a wider freedom that can achieve this. What this small victories can do though is inspire people to provide a breathing space in which more effective means can be pursued.
We have seen in the past how the law has been asked to change policies in any constructive way in the long term? (libcom poster's note - not entirely sure what this question means, I think two sentences may have been run together here.)
I have no doubt the prison administration will delay and do what they can to shrink their commitments in this case. New ways will no doubt be found to harass prisoners, their families and allies. But the pressure will be maintained. I and others, will be ever vigilant against the claw-back and creative repression.
What is the message to those us on the outside can take from this?
The more allies prisoners have, the more progress can be made and the more empowered we become. Change can beget change, especially if we can build enough momentum together.
As high-profile political prisoners, John Paul and Brendan McConville, the Craigavon Two, are currently being held in Maghaberry prison, one of the North’s most notorious prison system for a crime they did not commit. They continue to declare their innocence as well as fight against this ongoing miscarriage of justice.
You can send a letter or card in support and solidarity to John Paul at the following address:
John Paul Wootton
Davis House, Maghaberry Prison,
Old Road, Ballinderry Upper
Lisburn, BT28 2PT, North Ireland.
You can also send a card or a letter of support and solidarity directly to Brendan at the following address:
Maghaberry Prison, Roe House (Roe 4)
Old Road, Ballinderry Upper
Lisburn, BT28 2PT, North Ireland
You can find out more about the John Paul and Brendan McConville’s wrongful imprisonment as part of the Craigavon Two at the following link: #JFTC2
Solidarity Petition with the Craigavon Two: here
If you or a relative are on the inside and wish to highlight an action or issue then you can get in touch with Incarcerated Workers of the World here